March 25, 2003

Forum Focuses on Affirmative Action

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Even with many students recovering from sunburns and spring break hangovers, more than 80 students and staff members attended yesterday’s Call Auditorium forum, “Affirmative Action at the Crossroads: The Future of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.”

The Diversity Council and the Joint Assemblies Multicultural Issues Committee organized the discussion session to address students’ concerns regarding the University of Michigan Law School case, Grutter v. Bollinger, which will be heard by the Supreme Court starting April 1. The main purpose of the forum was to present major viewpoints to the student body, said Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development and mediator of the event.

The discussion featured a panel of four individuals: James Mingle, University counsel; Prof. Jeremy Rabkin, government; Prof. Benjamin Bowser ’76, sociology, California State University at Hayward; and Sika Bediako ’04, president of the Multicultural Greek Letter Council.

Each participant gave a speech outlining his or her position on the use of race in admissions decisions and then addressed written questions from members of the audience.

At the beginning of the forum, Mingle outlined the history of affirmative action. Although he admitted it is “a confusing concept in academia,” Mingle added that affirmative action policies are clearly beneficial.

“The more race-conscious an affirmative action program is, the more effective it is,” he said.

Amicus Brief

Mingle also explained the unique nature of Cornell’s amicus brief regarding the issue, which the University submitted with Columbia, Georgetown, Rice and Vanderbilt Universities. The document focused on colleges’ First Amendment right to autonomy in their admissions decisions.

While Bediako and Bowser supported the use of race in admissions decisions, Rabkin staunchly criticized the methodology.

According to Rabkin, the main issue is not justice for minority communities or the protection of merit, but “whether we’re going to let race interfere with our freedom.”

Rabkin said individuals are usually identified by their skin color or race, whereas whole groups should be evaluated regardless of skin color. Rabkin criticized the University of Michigan’s admissions practices, indicating that the standards for white students are different than those for minority candidates.

“I do not think it’s appropriate to base [admissions] on a color scheme,” he said.

In contrast, Bowser explained that throughout history, consideration for race in admissions, jobs and other areas are constant issues that “won’t go away as long as we have race as an issue in the U.S.”

Using various historical examples, Bowser said that even if the Supreme Court rules against the University of Michigan Law School, people will “find other ways of dealing with inequity.”

Bediako, the last speaker on the panel, said that minority students would lose support for the “right to enter higher education.” She said that race-conscious affirmative action practices have little effect on white job and college applicants.

“Some whites feel that if minorities are given a leg up, something is taken away from them,” Bediako said.

She added that if the University of Michigan Law School loses the case, minorities would have a much harder time finding jobs and that society might possibly revert back to the days when Jim Crow laws were enforced.

The question-and-answer session after the speeches covered a wide range of topics. When asked about the maintenance of equity, Rabkin said that keeping things in “terms of equity is a big mistake.”

Bowser also clarified his own position, saying he does not necessarily support the University of Michigan admissions office’s point system.

He also added that the affirmative action issue is promoting negative trends, including the mentality that companies do not need to hire minorities anymore because of a possible plaintiff win.

“The escalator is going backwards,” Bowser said.

Each panelist had a chance to make final remarks at the end of the forum. While Bowser and Rabkin reiterated their views supporting or criticizing the use of race in affirmative action, Mingle said that if supporting the University of Michigan Law School means maintaining autonomy for college admissions offices, then he supports it.

Judging from student responses after the forum, the panelists raised many opinions that drew mixed reviews. Many comments were directed toward Rabkin.

Individuals such as Anicia Ndabahaliye ’06 said that Rabkin did not back up his opinions with alternative solutions and was “condescending in some of his remarks.”

Others had a different perspective.

“I think [Rabkin’s] message will be lost on the crowd,” said Andrew Garib ’06. “We need a nation that doesn’t resort to race.”

Some members of the audience enjoyed the variety of views which were presented by the panel. David Haas ’04 called the forum “very effective” and said it was beneficial to hear student viewpoints from the questions which were addressed.

In addition to being a faculty member, Rabkin is also on the Board of Directors of the Center for Individual Rights, a group which has brought cases against the University of Michigan.

Bowser recently co-edited a book entitled Against the Odds: Scholars Who Challenged Racism in the Twentieth Century, which deals with racial inequality and illustrates the lives of scholars who spent their lives promoting change.

Archived article by Brian Tsao