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Updated 2:00 PM June 16, 2003
 

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Courant: Challenge to diversity evidence is unfounded

The Center for Individual Rights (CIR), the law firm representing the plaintiffs in two admissions lawsuits against U-M, last week issued a public retraction of a statement critical of the University's handling of affirmative action data after the University produced proof that CIR had received the material several years ago.

The University also strongly rebutted interpretations by CIR and others that the document in question casts doubt on the value of diversity.

"The work was neither withheld nor was it contradictory to all of the other evidence we have presented showing diversity to be valuable in the educational process," Provost Paul N. Courant says. "The work done by Professor Patricia Gurin as part of the University's defense is part of a large body of research nationally demonstrating these educational benefits. Her research methods and findings also have been supported by leading social science organizations in their amicus briefs filed with the court."

Gurin's research has been central to the University's defense of two lawsuits challenging its admissions policies in the Law School and LSA. "We stand behind Professor Gurin's research, which has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of the impact of a racially diverse campus environment on student learning," President Mary Sue Coleman says.

"We stand behind Professor Gurin's research, which has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of the impact of a racially diverse campus environment on student learning."
—President Mary Sue Coleman

The document called out by CIR was the May 1994 Executive Summary of the Michigan Student Study, which reported preliminary findings of a longitudinal survey on diversity on campus. After first charging the University with hiding the report, CIR later admitted that U-M had sent the document to its co-counsel in Minneapolis in April 1998. In 1999 CIR requested and received the survey instrument used in the study.

The accusation by CIR came about following an editorial in the May 16 Wall Street Journal submitted by Ann Arbor writer Chetly Zarko. The editorial drew on the 1994 report to assert that racial diversity on college campuses '"does not, in itself, lead to a more informed, educated population.'"

Courant says Zarko erred in relying on a preliminary report based on the findings from two years' worth of data from the four-year longitudinal study. "The preliminary report looked at student perceptions of racial climate and attitudes about specific University policies and programs," Courant says. "In contrast, Professor Gurin's later work employed sophisticated statistical analyses that were applied to the data from all four years of the Michigan Student Study, as well as to other data sets. Her work examined how actual experience with diversity affected students' own educational outcomes."

According to Gurin, students' perceptions of racial tension on campus "do not tell an accurate story about their own relationships." In her expert report, she notes that in their senior year students reported very little tension or hostility in their own interracial friendships at Michigan.

"At the time the survey was done, nearly all of Michigan's white students and half of the African American students came to Michigan with practically no experience with diverse peers," she says. "But friendships across race actually increased at Michigan over the four years. As seniors, 92 percent of the white students, 92 percent of Asian American students, 79 percent of African American students and 89 percent of Latino(a) students agreed that 'my relationships with students of different ethnic/racial groups has been positive.'"

Zarko's discussion of the link between minority enrollment and educational benefits also misses the point, Courant says. "Professor Gurin and her colleagues have never claimed that simply having certain numbers of minority students is sufficient, by itself, to bring about the educational benefits associated with diversity. In her expert report, she writes that universities must actively encourage student interaction," he says.

Courant notes that all the conclusions from the 1994 report have been updated and published on the Michigan Student Study Web site (http://www.umich.edu/~oami/mss/). With the support of a grant from the Ford Foundation, the investigators are replicating the original longitudinal study with a group of students who entered in 2000 and will graduate in 2004. They also are conducting additional surveys with the alumni who originally were studied as students a decade ago.

More detailed information about the research done in connection with the admissions lawsuits can be found at http://www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions.

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