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Session II: University of Michigan and Beyond

November 19-20, 2004
at Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans, Louisiana

Following are excerpts from Session II of the conference:

Presidential Remarks: Bettye Parker Smith, Interim President, Dillard University; Norman Francis, President, Xavier University.

Moderator: David Dent, Professor of Journalism, New York University.

Panelists: Margarita Benitez, Director of Washington Initiatives, University of Puerto Rico and chair, EXITO Task Force for Excelencia in Education; Brenda A. Allen, Associate Provost and Director of Institutional Diversity, Brown University; Bettye Parker Smith, Interim President, Dillard University; Norman Francis, President, Xavier University; and John Matlock, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Michigan.

Bettye Parker Smith: The legacy and both contemporary and future implications of Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board, and the recent Supreme Court decision regarding admissions criteria at the University of Michigan address issues of access and equality. In my opinion, there are more questions than answers as to what impact the recent presidential election has had regarding how these three cases continue to impact higher education in general.

On the one hand, during his first term in office President Bush appointed a cabinet that included historically underrepresented persons. However, the vehement manner in which he opposed the University of Michigan admissions policies, the failure of his No Child Left Behind Act to improve public educational opportunities in urban environments, and lots of reduced funding to programs such as Headstart questioned the administration's commitment to embracing the ideas of access and equality. So Bush's early actions in his cabinet were only symbolic and not meaningful.

In January 2003 Senator Tom Daschle said, "Right now in the Supreme Court the University of Michigan is being forced to defend its promotion of diversity on campus. Had President Bush chosen to support the University it would have been a powerful demonstration that his recent words about equality are matched by his commitment to achieving equality. By choosing to oppose the University President Bush called into question his commitment to expanding opportunities for African-Americans, Hispanic and Native American students. All of us are left to draw one conclusion: words about promoting educational opportunity were just that—words. The president may think that John Ashcroft's Department of Justice should work against diversity. I believe Michigan's system is constitutional. I believe Michigan's system creates true opportunity. And I believe that is something our leaders should be supporting."

Senator Edward Kennedy said earlier this year that funding only 65% of the No Child Left Behind Act, as President Bush would, in his book deserves a D- grade. In addition to questions about insufficient funding, critics of No Child Left Behind agree the plan penalizes schools with more diverse student populations. The New York Times reported that a recent California study revealed that failing schools were designated not because tests showed their overall achievement had faltered but because a single student group, disabled learners of Asian descent, for example, had fallen short of the target. As a result, the chances that a school would be designated as failing increased in proportion to the number of demographic groups served by the school.

The White House initiative on HBCUs, which was established in an executive order signed by former President Ronald Reagan, seeks to increase the amount of funding federal agencies award to HBCUs. However, there remains a large disparity in the amount of federal funding awarded to PWIs (predominantly white institutions) as opposed to HBCUs.

For example, according to the 2001-2002 annual report of the president's board of advisers on HBCUs, of the nearly $40-million budget awarded to all institutions of higher learning in this country in 2001, HBCUs collectively received $1.4 million.

HBCUs have served this country very well. We currently produce 22.5% of all baccalaureate degrees, 11.9% of master's degrees, and 18.9% of all professional degrees earned by African-Americans. Most HBCUs are more than 100 years old. They have always been proponents of equality and have never denied access to persons on the basis of race or any other reason. In addition to test scores, HBCUs view prospective students holistically to better access their potential. Of the top 10 institutions that graduate the most African-American baccalaureates, only three—Georgia State, Temple, and Florida State—are PWIs. The number of African- Americans admitted into the University of California fell 15% from 2003 to 2004. UC-Berkeley only had 194 African-Americans among the 7,753 students admitted this last fall, a 30% decrease from 2003.

Compare this to 515 black students from the entering class of fall 1997, the last year Berkeley considered race as a factor in admissions. As one nationally renowned scholar of higher education noted, this under-representation of African- Americans in predominately white institutions, juxtaposed with the success of African-Americans who attend black colleges and universities, shows that black institutions are an essential fixture in American higher education. The existence of HBCUs, like that of other institutions of higher learning that have particular distinction, reinforces the true spirit of the Brown decision, which is to provide greater opportunity to all American citizens.

America undoubtedly possesses the most diverse higher education system in the world. In addition to HBCUs, there are Native American colleges, Catholic colleges, Jewish colleges, women's colleges, the junior college system, and more. Duke law professor James Coburn wrote in a commentary on the Supreme Court decision involving the University of Michigan School of Law that Justice O'Connor expressed the hope that 25 years from now race-conscious admissions would not be necessary. Actually achieving such admissions belongs in the same category of aspirations as achieving a color-blind society. If race-conscious admissions are eliminated, should criteria used to admit persons into women's college for example, be eliminated? Why are such colleges as women's colleges needed? If the importance and relevance of HBCUs, which always have been proponents for diversity, are questioned, why not question the existence of other colleges, which have similar distinctions?

Fairly recently a Harvard Magazine article on faculty diversity noted that faculty of color remain a very small part of the professoriate. Whites constitute 95% of all faculty members in 1972 and 83% in 1997. Most of the growth in minority participation is by Asian-Americans. The percentage of African-American faculty at all levels has been remarkably stagnant. 4.4% in 1975; 55 in 1997; and almost half of black faculty teach at HBCUs. The increase in Hispanic faculty has also been slow: 1.4% in 1975 to 2.8% in 1997.

Please pay attention to this: 94% of professors in science and engineering are white, and 90% of them are male. 91% of full professors at research universities are white; 75% are male. 87% of full-time professors are white; 64% are male. Only 5% of the full professors in the U.S. are black, Hispanic, or Native American. The gap between the percentage of tenured men and tenured women has not changed significantly in 30 years.

Bill Gray, former CEO of the United Negro College Fund, wrote in November 2003 that more than 25% of faculty at HBCUs are white, compared with less than 4% of black faculty at predominantly white colleges. More than 10% of deans and administrators at HBCUs are white, compared to 2% of blacks at predominantly white institutions.

The recent presidential election represented an opportunity to provide answers and solutions to many of the challenges we face in higher education. However, the question that needs answering for us today always will echo the intent of the Brown decision, and that question is how committed is this nation to providing access and opportunities to deserving individuals, race notwithstanding, and to improving all aspects of our increasingly diverse society?

Norman Francis: Isn't it interesting that Homer Plessy and his friends decided to challenge that Louisiana law in 1892, and they were confident that they were going to get the justices of the court to change this law. To their surprise, they had no idea, I'm sure, that what they were about to do was going to have the legal, social, and educational consequences that came to be.

The Dred Scott case said there was no constitutional protection that the country owed to Negroes. Then Plessy became somewhat the child of Dred Scott. If that was the case then Brown was the liberator. But I hope people understand that Brown really had much more of a significance to America for what it produced as a foundation for eradicating separate but equal than it did for education.

I say that because I was in law school when Brown was passed. Nobody ever mentioned it. Now I happen to have been the first black in an all-white law school, so it was quiet. And looking back at it, you start to understand why: because it was the first time the Supreme Court had faced the issue—that this was the greatest fraud ever perpetrated upon the American people, to make separate-but-equal the law of the land. Unfortunately the South, particularly, and the rest of the nation has not recovered to this day, and in fact we in the South would have been much further ahead had there never been a Plessy. We lost generations of human capital that would have made the South as strong as any region in the nation. It was the fact that Brown broke the shackles, so the speak, that produced all the other things that we've had.

Let me make two things clear: In my view, we're not where we used to be, but we are nowhere near where we ought to be—whether it's education, health, housing, all the quality of life issues. So as we champion today what Brown meant, and it did mean a lot, let us not be deceived. In fact, I will dare to say to you that in 2004 we may not be any better off in quality of life issues, relatively speaking, than we were in 1954.

Now that sounds strange to say that. People hear me say that and say how ungrateful, how disrespectful. What the forces out there now are saying is that the playing field is level. Let's not talk about doing anything special; it's level. Well, it's not level. And if you believe it's level you are back in the separate but equal days. What people don't want to accept is that it is, in fact, not level. If you are going to make progress in these United States in education you're going to have to be more affirmative in what you do. That's not being equal in doing something, you're going to have to be equitable. If you accept the fact that the playing field is not level, you have to ask the waiter to pour equal amounts of water but they have to be in equal glasses. I learned a long way back in a little school that if you pour equal amounts of water into unequal glasses the glasses remain unequal.

So how must you do it? You have to pour the water equitably. Some people don't understand the difference between equitable and equal. You're going to have to pour more in some glasses than in others. But the quick answer that our demigod politicians say is you are discriminating, because you are taking water out of my brother-in-law's glass and pouring it over here. I say to you that America has enough money in quality education to pour everyone's glass equally and equitably. That's the major issue facing us today. We are faced with being equitable in our distribution of resources.

The second most important thing this country has to learn is that the educational system from pre-K all the way to graduate school is one system. You shouldn't try to divide us. If there is a message to what we're saying politically now it is going to be pre-K to high school isn't high on the agenda. We're going to have to work very hard in that regard.

I think it was Churchill who said the further you are able to look back the more you can see into the future. What's very clear is that we are not going to be able to rely on those 60s moral, emotional, feelings about we ought to do what's right. Those days are gone.

I have had the privilege over the last 47 years of sitting ringside at what has happened in the education system up through high school, and I've been inside the ring for 37 years in higher education. It never ceases to amaze me that whenever I get inside the Washington beltway that we have to educate a whole new group of bureaucrats. That's going to be our constant job, and we do have a responsibility. At the HBCUs, we have been carrying this load for a long time, and it's a heavy load. And nobody seems to understand how important we are to this country.

We have been more diverse than any other institutions in the country, and I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired of explaining why we are more American than anybody else. And that's a fact. So as we meet here today we ought to know what the past has been, we ought to know, in effect, what works, and we ought to be able to plan the future in ways in which we have not been successful in the past.

I will confess something to you: I regret that my generation was not able to do as much as we thought we could do, and so if that is any blueprint you may not be able to do as much as you think. It's on your shoulders now, and it has been said that the only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and good women to do nothing.

John Matlock: Let me make a few observations about the Michigan case. First, one of the things that many people don't know is that we talk about diversity but this case is about race. The basis of the two lawsuits—the one against the Michigan Law School and the one against the undergraduate school—were two white females who said that they didn't get into the University of Michigan and they had higher grade point averages than some African-American students who were admitted.

There were two issues before the court: one, to establish a compelling interest that race could be used as a factor. Secondly, if the court established that, one would have to determine if the university had done just enough to meet that standard.

We got a five-four decision. The court established in both cases a compelling interest. Justice Kennedy disagreed on one provision on how this was applied to the law school. Michigan chose to argue this case as diversity being an educational benefit for all students. The primary reason we did that is that it didn't take too much to figure out that anything related to Brown was pretty much getting shot down in the courts. Instead of rooting our defense in the Brown decision, we rooted it in the Bakke decision of 1978, where Justice Powell said there was an educational benefit in diversity. Secondly, race could be used as a factor.

We were very fortunate that a team of researchers had collected data—one of the striking things that came before the court is that 94% of all white students at the University of Michigan came from all-white backgrounds—white communities, white high schools. Half of African-Americans came from all African-American communities. This established the framework that for most of these students the higher education experience was the only place where they would get an experience in diversity before they entered the workforce.

The problem with educational benefit for all as the best case we could argue is that there is still an issue about education for whom, and who are we really talking about when we say "all" and under what terms. So the equity part got pushed to the back burner. We were all fearing a doomsday decision, which would be if the court not only struck down the Michigan case, which would have impacted all of higher education, but it could have also put this into employment and other areas—an all-sweeping decision.

The court pretty much ruled on the issue on the table, and that was the admission process. It didn't really go much farther than that, which, to a certain degree, left a lot of people trying to figure out what the court really said. The court was very clever in some of the ways it skirted around issues. We have to remember that this court should have taken up the race/diversity issue long before it did.

Another issue that is important is that when we talk about diversity there is a difference between diversity and affirmative action. This got framed as an affirmative action case. When we do surveys that raise the question about diversity in higher education we get probably 90-95% agreement; when we drop the word diversity and insert affirmative action we get about 45% agreement among whites. So the word affirmative action has become charged.

What did we do with our admissions process? How did we change? The court stuck down the part about using a point system, even though we were giving points to everyone. The name of the game at Michigan is to get as many points as possible on a 150-point scale. We gave points for athletes, race and ethnicity, women in engineering and sciences, even for males who wanted to go into nursing. But the court said it looks too much like a quota system, and it struck that part down.

We came up with a new system where the name of the game is not so much points you accumulate, but how well did you write and how well did you tell your story. If you lived in a bus in a parking lot someplace you needed to tell that story. Because the court said you had to do a holistic review of every student—and that's problematic: we have 25,000 students competing for 5200 slots.

One thing that I find very troubling is that when the court indicated that in 25 years it hoped we would not have to do this again it means we have our work cut out for us. (When you look at that 25-year timeline, it's strange that the court rules on diversity and affirmative action situations every 25 years—Brown in 54, Bakke in 78, Michigan in 2004, so we to a certain extent hope they don't rule on this again.

It's painful that 50 years after Brown we are still dealing with the same issues. To a certain extent we have not done all the things that we could do for future generations of students. And I think it's unfair to put the burden on students who live in a society that cannot come to grips with race.

Margarita Benitez: I am going to focus on Latinos, to provide a Hispanic perspective.

I think we have to keep our eyes on the prize. The prize is access to excellent education, which means that excellent education can and should and must be provided elsewhere beyond star schools. This is an issue of great importance to the Hispanic population in this country—already the largest, youngest, fastest-growing minority group in this country.

I am going to focus on the students already in the higher education system. Almost half of the Latino college population is enrolled at Hispanic-serving institutions. Recently, an initiative called the Latino Students Success Project contacted institutions in California, Texas, and New York and asked them to look at what they were doing in relation to serving Hispanic students and share it with others. It caught everybody by surprise. It hadn't happened before. The presidents of each institution appointed people from academic affairs, institutional research, and student services to look at what they were doing on behalf of Latino students at their campuses. Getting those three offices to talk to each other was itself an accomplishment, as was getting institutions within the same systems to talk to each.

They found many things in common. After barely a year of sharing practices, issues, challenges, each one of those institutions has a much clearer and more ambitious agenda than it did before. It has also validated the things that it the institutions are doing right, and, I hope, will strengthen each institution's position to request additional support and additional funding.

I want to close these opening remarks by emphasizing the value of initiatives such as the one that brings us here together. Because for over 20 years without patronizing, without telling people from small schools what to do, but rather in a spirit of collegiality, respect, and good will the Faculty Resource Network has opened possibilities for so many of us to grow, to learn, to develop and to go back and serve the communities we love so much. I think it is an extraordinary initiative and I admire it, I commend it, and I want the federal government to fund it.

Brenda Allen: I want to focus on what I think is a paradox—what is going to happen to affirmative action now that diversity is a concept of choice. Everyone has said already that the Supreme Court decision suggests that achievement of academic excellence turns powerfully on racial and ethnic diversity. The court reiterated that the best education for us all is an education gotten in a context rich with different outlooks, points of view, and so on.

So while there are many aspects of the Michigan case that we need to celebrate, we also have to ask ourselves a very important question: What happens to the discussion of race and racism as we move towards diversity? For me, the great thing achieved in that decision was that the focus on diversity suggested that the life experiences of all people had integrity. That was pretty revolutionary—how we thought about poor people, people of color in this country. For a long time we thought about affirmative action, social justice movements, and doing something for people, but what the Michigan legal team argued in fact was that individuals bring something to the situation, not in spite of where they come from but because of where they come from.

So for the first time we really started to understand that there is humanity in the life experiences of all people, and that humanity has a place in the academic context. We talk a lot about what's happening between the middle class and the lower class and so on, and that is something I think we have to continue to think about. You put together the ideas that people have integrity and they have something to add, and that by adding that we increase and contribute to the depth of learning by all.

But what keeps gnawing at me is that when you look at that argument you also have to begin to think about what happens to some of the fundamental principles that underlie affirmative action. Indeed, the way in which the final opinion was written really compromised our ability to redress patterns of exclusion and opportunities available in American society.

For example, I understood affirmative action as a government approach to try to redress historical patterns of discrimination and oppression. We thought about it not in terms of what diversity could do for institutions but we thought of it in terms of what institutions could do for people who have been historically left out of the conversation. But if you read Justice O'Connor's majority opinion closely, she really takes society out of that. She talks about diversity as something that is the problem of institutions of higher education. Basically, I lose the sense or understanding of society's role. What happens to society in general, as we look around at patterns of racism in the nation that have not changed. I ask myself, where does this leave us?

Since the Supreme Court decision, for example, the Mellon Minority Fellowship had to regroup and redefine what that fellowship was all about. We look at some of the programs that were at Princeton and MIT, programs designed to redress historical patterns of oppression and discrimination, and they have been revamped, and revamped in such a way that race loses its significance. So we take the emphasis off of race, but we still have to deal with this notion of diversity.

I conclude by saying that I'm worried about what happens to affirmative action. As an associate provost at an institution that promotes diversity, I'm also worried about how I can keep the conversation about race and racism going in such a way that I don't feel threatened that the Department of Education or other federal agencies will come down on Brown University and say you can't do X, Y, and Z because any risk we take may be a risk for every other institution that faces the same problems.