The University Record, November 26, 1997

Panel presents perspectives on diversity in higher education

'No one would say NBA coaches are discriminating against short white players. If we use this in sports, why not in higher education?' aksed John Furedy, University of Toronto psychology professor. Furedy voiced an anti-affirmative action viewpoint at Tuesday's session. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

Editor's Note

By Paula Saha

The academic, personal and political came together last Tuesday night when three U-M faculty members, one professor from the University of Toronto and about 200 audience members participated in the second installment of "Affirmative Action 101: Understanding the Controversy."

The evening's panelists included Earl Lewis, professor of history and of Afroamerican and African history and interim dean of the Graduate School; John Furedy, professor of psychology from the University of Toronto and president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship; Peter Railton, professor of philosophy; and Maris Vinovskis, chair of the Department of History.

The goal of the evening was to discuss the efficacy and purpose of affirmative action in a university setting. The four faculty members offered academic perspectives of affirmative action in light of the recent lawsuit against U-M admissions practices.

Lewis offered a historical perspective of affirmative action. A single refrain sounded throughout his presentation--that history matters. "Each of us realizes the present through an acknowledged or unacknowledged experience with the past."

Lewis spent the first 10 years of his schooling in state-mandated segregated schools in Virginia. "Desegregated schooling is not a new thing--schools were not effectively desegregated until 1971, 1972," he said.

With regard to the lawsuit, Lewis referred to a recent article in the New York Times that detailed the visible daily miseries of those living in Chicago's Caprini-Green housing projects. "Hidden in the shadows of that story is another story. More and more people live in residentially segregated establishments--residential housing has a strong association with the lawsuit--what do we do with a student whose family couldn't move to a better-funded school? How do we link things that are visible and invisible?"

Furedy, the only panelist opposed to affirmative action, said discrimination needed to be fought in an "enlightened way."

Furedy sees affirmative action as the "ignorant" way of fighting discrimination. "Martin Luther King recognized this when he called for a color-blind society. There is one simple rule to fighting discrimination: do not discriminate.

Furedy contended that individuals who are members of groups that affirmative action is designed to help actually suffer in these programs. "People who are accepted have a smear attached to themŠit will be assumed that they were accepted not for their merit, but for their race or gender.

"Good intentions pave the road to Hell. With affirmative action, the cure is worse than the disease."

Railton said that in considering affirmative action, one should consider a candidate's location in society and in history. "Where do we find talent? We expect there is a lot of talent in groups in less propitious situations. We need to look at admissions prospects with corrective lenses."

"Why go by race instead of class?" asked Railton. "If you look at various indicators, race matters."

Railton showed a clip from ABC News where a middle-class white man and a middle-class Black man went in search of an apartment. Whereas the white man was encouraged to rent the apartments, the Black man was discouraged or refused.

In response to the clip, Furedy said that this was exactly the form of fighting discrimination that he was in favor of--fighting individual instances of discrimination and racism, and not as policy-mandated, outcome-based measures.

Railton, however, saw it as an example of a larger social problem. "Being middle-class if you are African American," explained Railton, "does not remove you from the social location of being Black."

Vinovskis said that affirmative action, while having made the University a more ethnically diverse place, does not adequately address the needs of the nation's poor.

"Are we letting in students who cannot do work here? The answer is no. The University should be congratulated for what we've done--it is a better place than it was 20, 30 years ago. But if you really value diversity, we should broaden our definition to include the economically disadvantaged. We should value diversity of thought and opinion."

During a question-and-answer period, Joyce Ann Wahr, audience member and assistant dean of medical school admissions asked panelists their opinions on how to measure candidate integrity in the admissions process. Furedy responded that "test scores alone were not the way to determine admission. In terms of fairness, however, other factors should not include the amount of melanin in an applicant's skin."

Lewis disagreed. "How do you take the whole person into consideration? You need to understand the degree to which race, gender and religion affect that person. You need to look at that person as a whole."

Students in the audience also questioned the legitimacy of attacking U-M admissions policies related to race when no attacks are being made on legacies in which students are given additional points if they have family who are alumni.

"This is a time for us to look at the way the University does things," agreed Railton. "A time to really examine and consider these things."

All the panelists agreed that the forum was a positive step and that diversity was an important part of the University setting. Vinovskis said this was the first time in years of teaching that he felt productive dialogue was being encouraged. Even so, he pointed out the difficulty organizers had of finding faculty members opposed to affirmative action who were willing to speak out.

"We talk a lot about freedom of speech on this campus, we just don't practice it. People are afraid of speaking up--tenured faculty members are afraid to talk. What a statement that makes about our institution."

"A University," Furedy said, "should be a place where there are innumerable conflicts of opinion which do not necessarily lead to differences in personality."

Colette Stevenson, a member of the Michigan Student Assembly Women's Issues Commission, felt the symposium to be very successful. "When we in the Women's Issues Commission started talking, we realized a lot of us were undecided and confused about affirmative action. We decided, if we are, what about the rest of the student body? It's good to hear different perspectives, to know what others are thinking."