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Updated 8:30 AM June 1, 2004



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  50 years after Brown v. Board
Educators discuss ways to make affirmative action
unnecessary in future

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered school desegregation, educators now are focused on how to go about achieving a goal set by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor last year: making affirmative action unnecessary within 25 years.

More than 200 educators gathered May 17 for a Provost's Seminar on multi-cultural teaching to mark the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education anniversary and to discuss it in the context of the 2003 U-M admissions decisions.
"It's clear leaders in higher education
continue to look to Michigan for leadership in diversity." —Provost
Paul N. Courant

The event, organized by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, was the culmination of the University's Brown v. Board theme semester and one of a series of multicultural teaching sessions to follow.

"It's clear leaders in higher education continue to look to Michigan for leadership in diversity," said Provost Paul N. Courant. "They ask us what we're doing and how we're doing it. We now have 24 years left to meet Sandra Day O'Connor's challenge."

Lawrence Bobo, a Harvard University professor of sociology and African American Studies who earned his master's and doctoral degrees at U-M, told participants the Brown and Michigan cases demonstrate that "laws and legal rulings do not implement themselves" and that backers must work continually to make them a reality.

LSA Dean Terrence McDonald echoed Bobo's point, saying U-M must accept its historic duty.

"No one will make this a community of inclusion other than ourselves. We have to invent it and re-invent it," he said.

McDonald said the Supreme Court rulings in the U-M lawsuits have been used by affirmative action opponents to justify the dismantling of programs designed to assist minorities. He said there rarely has been a major successful transformation that was not challenged.

Patricia Gurin, professor emeritus of psychology and women's studies, whose research on the educational benefits of diversity was part of the U-M Supreme Court cases, told participants how students learn more in a diverse environment.

Research has shown that most "everyday thinking" is primarily "automatic, mindless and inactive," she said. "You couldn't drive a car without that kind of thinking."

"Active thinking," however, occurs when people are presented with a novel situation that causes them to be alert and pay more attention, such as when people change jobs or go into a new neighborhood, she said. The diverse environment students encounter at U-M helps provoke such active thinking, which is needed to excel in a classroom, she said.

Gurin noted that 92 percent of white and half of African American students on campus come from homogeneous neighborhoods that predominantly are made up of their own race. Only Asian American students tend to encounter a more multicultural environment prior to entering college, she said.

Encountering so many people the students otherwise wouldn't encounter offers an experience that is novel and unique, Gurin said. Providing them situations such as meeting someone with views or a background different than their own are "the exact ways to engage our students in active thinking," she said.

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