The University Record, October 11, 1999

Affirmative action ‘one of most significant issues for society,’ Bollinger says

By Jane R. Elgass

President Lee C. Bollinger addressed members of the Association of Black Professionals, Administrators, Faculty and Staff at their first meeting of the year last week. Most of the discussion focused on the admissions lawsuits. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
“We are defending something that has deep roots in the publicness of this institution. We want to try to preserve it,” said President Lee C. Bollinger last week in discussing the lawsuits against admissions practices in LS&A and the Law School.

Addressing members of the Association of Black Professionals, Administrators, Faculty and Staff, Bollinger said the affirmative action issues surrounding the lawsuits are “one of the most significant issues for society,” adding that he feels the suits undoubtedly will reach the Supreme Court through the appeals process. “This is a matter of principle, and ours are the leading cases in the United States on this issue.”

Much of the University’s defense is based on the decision handed down in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, when the Supreme Court held that official segregation was unconstitutional. “This is the greatest decision of the century,” Bollinger said, adding that it prompted colleges and universities to seek students who would help create a diverse educational environment.

The principle was reaffirmed in 1978 in a case involving the University of California, Davis, Medical School, when the Supreme Court held that consideration of race for education purposes was constitutional.

The appeals court decision against the University of Texas Law School in the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case appeared to put affirmative action at risk nationwide, not just in the area covered by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Voter-approved Proposition 209 in California and one in Washington state had a similar chilling effect.

But Bollinger said he senses a change in attitude across the nation, evidenced most prominently by presidential candidate George W. Bush who has not taken a position on the issue. “Major political figures see this as a political throwback device,” Bollinger said, adding that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked Ward Connerly to leave Florida. Connerly is a former University of California regent and was a leading proponent of California’s Proposition 209, which prohibits the use of race in hiring, contracting and education.

Political leaders see moves to strike down affirmative action “as a divisive, huge mistake,” the president said.

He also noted that former President Gerald R. Ford’s op-ed piece this past summer in the New York Times has done much to raise public awareness of the seriousness of the issue.

Opponents of affirmative action claim that race is no longer a factor in American life, Bollinger explained. “But this is not the case. Metropolitan Detroit is the second most segregated area in the country. Most of our students come from all Black or all white high schools,” first encountering diversity when they arrive on campus. “Race is important. It’s crucial.”

Bollinger remains optimistic that the University will prevail in the lawsuits, and noted that the higher education community is solidly behind the U-M on the issue.

In response to questioning, Bollinger said it is hard to tell what might happen should the University lose the suits. “It is very frightening and would depend on the wording [of the decision]. If we lose on the principle, it would mean we could not take race into account in any of our decision-making. A decision against us would have serious, broad implications.

“We have built the University on the diversity of its educational environment. We would be at a loss, a really sad loss.”

In attempting to rebuild a diverse student body, the California system now is relying heavily on outreach and mentoring programs and Texas is using “the 10 percent solution,” automatically admitting the top 10 percent of high school graduates. But Bollinger sees flaws in both.

“We already do a tremendous amount of outreach and work with K-12 programs. If we were limited to this, it would be a generation at least before we have diversity again.”

The president said there also is another problem with this approach. If a ruling indicated that race could never be taken into account, the outreach and mentoring programs would be at risk, because they address the needs of minority students.

“This has not been the principle of our Constitution. The Supreme Court has never held to this,” Bollinger stated.

The 10 percent solution is a bad system for a public university because we would be forced to admit students “who are not ready to do work at the University of Michigan. We can make a better judgment about who is ready than a formula [can yield].”

This approach is also flawed, Bollinger pointed out, “because it gives you diversity only if there is an underlying segregated system,” and does nothing to help graduate schools.

This approach could “fall to the same problems as tutoring and mentoring,” Bollinger said.

State of the U

President Lee C. Bollinger pronounced the University in good health during opening remarks at the meeting of the Association of Black Professionals, Administrators, Faculty and Staff last week, noting that several of the crises of recent years have passed.

  • Despite grave concerns that the Health System would lose money because of managed care and decreases in patient population, the System is thriving today.

  • Shaky relations with the executive and legislative branches of state government have been replaced by an atmosphere of trust and support.

  • The federal government, which five years ago appeared to be ready to stop funding basic research, now has a positive attitude, recognizing the importance of that research to the economy and many other facets of American life.

    He also noted that the U-M has a highly talented pool of students and a staff with “tremendous commitment” that is supported and valued.