The University Record, January 28, 1998
By Jane R. Elgass
The lawsuit brought against the University for its undergraduate admissions practices is "not a matter of small moment" and the issues surrounding it "go to the heart of the values of the University of Michigan," President Lee C. Bollinger told those attending the Association of Black Professionals, Administrators, Faculty and Staff in Rackham Assembly Hall Jan. 21. He also noted that the suit raises "one of the most important issues at the end of the century."
"The University is first and foremost an academic institution," Bollinger said, "characterized by an unusual combination of values," one of which is its status as a public institution that is "unwilling to accept any level of aspiration lower than the very best." One element of its public nature is its commitment to openness in which we "recognize merit wherever we find it," Bollinger said. "We won't let artificial barriers interfere with advancement of merit. It is critical that we take pride in this, that we continue to keep working [on this]."
We also must make sure, Bollinger said, that "our conceptions of merit and talent have opportunities to redefine themselves. Merit and talent come in many forms," he added, and the University requires flexibility in addressing their changing nature over time.
The president noted that in the admissions process, the University does more than just evaluate the merit of individuals in comparison or competition with one another. "We ask, 'What can you contribute to the whole, bring to the mix of the whole class?' This is a deep principle of a public institution. We are trying to create a whole."
Bollinger said that resolution of the undergraduate admissions lawsuit, now in the "discovery" phase, is likely to take several years.
The case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 set forth the ideal of an integrated society, with the court ruling that segregation of schools based on race was unconstitutional, demonstrating that "education itself is critical to opportunity for people of all races," he noted.
The ruling in the 1978 Bakke case was consistent with Brown and the 14th Amendment, saying that public universities could take race into account to ensure diversity in the belief that educating students in a diverse environment is critical to their education, Bollinger said. The issues, the president stated, are whether Bakke is still good law, whether the ideal set forth in Brown is still a force in society.
Drawing on his experience as a teacher, Bollinger noted that diversity in the classroom makes for very different discussions and that it would be "unthinkable" to have the presence of African American students reduced to four, as happened at the University of Texas Law School's entering class last fall.
"We need to convey this to the courts," Bollinger said.
When you are in a truly diverse environment, you understand things about yourself that you don't when you are in a mirror-image environment. "This [exploring other people's sensibilities] is what education is about," he stated.
"Diversity along the line of race is one powerful example of what we do as educators. It is fundamental to our purpose."
Responding to a question on keeping the University inclusive for minority staff members, Bollinger said he values "a diverse staff in the same way I value a diverse student body and faculty. We need to keep striving [to make a diverse environment] a working, living reality. I'm interested in knowing how minority staff feel about the institution, about 'What's the life like,'" he said, encouraging notes and e-mail messages on the subject.
He indicated that attention is being paid to creating a merit increase program compatible with the small amount of money that will be available for that purpose, particularly with respect to how those at the lowest levels are treated relative to others.
He was urged by one audience member to have the administration make a monetary commitment to "make salary equity a reality" and to take a look at the effects the "glass ceiling" has on people of color.
He also was encouraged to make funding available to enhance and expand existing programs that assist underrepresented minorities, rather than simply funding new initiatives. Asked how the organization might support him and the University, Bollinger said that "students are in some pain as a result of the lawsuit. If you could be sensitive to that, reach out to the students, that would be tremendous."