The University Record, November 26, 1997

State politicians debate University admissions criteria

Libertarian Tim O'Brien addresses students. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Paula Saha

By far the most well-attended of the four evenings, Wednesday night's segment of "Affirmative Action 101: Understanding the Controversy" turned into political baiting as Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith, Rep. Ted Wallace, Rep. David Jaye and Libertarian Party chair Tim O'Brien squared off on affirmative action.

A crowd of about 400 crammed into Auditorium D in Angell Hall, spilling into the hallways where television monitors were set up to accommodate all those who came to hear political perspectives on the current debate.

The throng of students and national media attention were due in part to the presence of David Jaye, a key player in the admissions lawsuit brought against the University. Jaye, the Republican state representative from Macomb County, actively recruited white students who had been denied admission to the University as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In introductory remarks, a representative of the Michigan Student Assembly Women's Issues Commission urged students to show respect for all the speakers. "Education on all sides of the issue is instrumental. Refusal to respect others negates the purpose of this symposium." Nevertheless, as each politician took the podium to square off with one another, audience emotions grew heated and political sniping took center-stage.

O'Brien began with an explanation of the Libertarian philosophy and its consequential stance on affirmative action. According to Libertarians, O'Brien explained, the only purpose of government is to protect its people from criminals and outside harm. "If it were up to Libertarians, government would not be providing us with education. However, since it does, it has no business discriminating for or against anyone. Affirmative action is absolutely inherently and totally wrong.

"I find it rather ironic that 25-30 years ago I was marching in the streets for equal rights, and I am still doing same. However, I've changed to the opposite side of the issue while always standing in the same place."

Wheeler-Smith, whose father was the first tenured Black faculty member at the University, pointed out that Blacks have historically been denied access to better education and consequently, higher income levels. "It is the government's obligation to make some opportunities for those who have not benefitted from a long line of advantage," asserted Wheeler-Smith.

Next on the podium, Jaye said, "Affirmative action is unfair, racist, evil and soon to be illegal. A little bit of racism is not OK...equality is an absolute."

Jaye believes that the University is admitting the incompetent and unprepared based on their racial background. "Americans are fair and generous. The bottom line should be meritocracy, not mediocracy. I believe that there is not a lot of racism in America. There is, however, a lot of resentment."

Wallace disagreed. "The University of Michigan does not admit anyone to this University who is unqualified. There is not one Black person, or red or brown or yellow person, with lower scores than some white person on this campus.

"David Jaye likes to call himself the 'brightest and the best.' When David Jaye came to U-M there were Blacks and women who were better qualified than he who were not admitted," Wallace said.

Making note of the oppositions in the room, O'Brien maintained that "backlash is what you're asking for with affirmative action. This is a social problem. The government should not be involved."

"What are the consequences of affirmative action?" asked Jaye. "Minority businesses are ripping taxpayers and it hurts the poor by sending them poor teachers in areas that need the best and the brightest, not the mediocre and substandard."

Wheeler-Smith contended that Jaye was making the false assumptions that any student of a minority background is inherently unqualified to be here; and that the University graduates students who are unqualified. Wheeler-Smith also said that talking to students who were admitted to the University through affirmative action programs reveals that these students do not care how they got into the University. "When they are the president of Xerox, writing those checks back to the University, it's not going to matter. David Jaye comes from two basic assumptions. I would suggest these assumptions come from a very racist background."

When directly accused by a student of being a racist, Jaye countered by calling "U-M bureaucrats" the racists, by "basing public policy on race."

During the question-and-answer period, first-year LS&A student Sarah Ratkovich commented that she felt there were better ways to achieve diversity than affirmative action, such as improving the quality of K-12 schools.

Wheeler-Smith agreed with Ratkovich that improving K-12 schools was an important part of achieving diversity, but maintained that affirmative action was still a necessary component. "What we cannot do in this country is draw a line in the sand and say from this time forward we will not discriminate. We are facing decades and decades of discrimination. Affirmative action is a remedy, not a preference."

Students expressed mixed reaction to the evening's program.

Ratkovich, who attended both previous sessions of the symposium, was not impressed. "I ran completely into a brick wall tonight. The last two nights I feel like I really learned, could appreciate what everyone had to say. Today was loud and obnoxious, like a campaign scene."

Jessica Curtin, senior majoring in history and a member of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary, urged students to join in a march to the Fleming Building following the symposium. "While the symposium and educating students is very necessary, if we don't take action after we learn the facts, we are going to lose affirmative action.

"Courts respond to social pressure. We should go directly from learning about all the reasons we should be for affirmative action to putting that into practice."

Isa Kasoga, a first-year LS&A student, said that while emotions ran high, he saw merit in the symposium. "The most positive thing is that people came together, for the most part. This should be a springboard for future dialogues. That's how things get resolved. MSA should be commended for organizing this."