ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If the Supreme Court decides to end university admission programs that consider an applicant’s race, the University of Michigan has advice for other schools: There are plenty of other ways to encourage campus diversity.
But there’s a catch: None of the programs Michigan has tried has resulted in as many students of color as before.
“We have one hand tied behind our back,” said Robert M. Sellers, UM’s vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs.
Amid increasing protests by minority students on the nation’s campuses and renewed debate about racial inequality, the Supreme Court on Wednesday will return to the question of whether and when race may be used in admission policies.
The court’s ruling may be a narrow one, either upholding or rejecting the specific and unique admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin. Or the justices could go bold and decide that the time has come to do away with race-conscious policies.
If it is the latter, the University of Michigan, a storied public university with highly regarded graduate schools, has offered itself to the court as a test case for what happens when the consideration of race is strictly forbidden.
“The evidence here is that with the inability to use race or ethnicity at all, our campus has become less diverse,” UM President Mark Schlissel said in an interview. “It certainly impacts the opportunities provided for talented, underrepresented-group students, and it diminishes the ultimate overall quality of the education we provide. It’s a lose-lose. It’s a huge mistake.”
Michigan’s argument is representative of the liberal orthodoxy about the value of campus diversity espoused by the nation’s top universities. Those elite universities are among the nearly 70 groups and individuals who have filed amicus briefs supporting the University of Texas.
UM says its experience is instructive partly because the university has played a large role in the court’s jurisprudence on the issue. It was in looking at Michigan’s efforts to create a diverse student body that the Supreme Court in 2003 came up with the standard that remains today.
The court said at the time that universities cannot provide bonus points for an applicant’s race to boost a minority student who would not otherwise be qualified for admission.
But the justices also recognized that creating a critical mass of diversity on campuses is a compelling interest for a university. To that end, the court said, colleges could consider an applicant’s race in a way that otherwise might be viewed as a violation of the Constitution’s equal-protection clause.
But where the Supreme Court left the door cracked open on the consideration of race, Michigan voters in 2006 shut it. As in some other states, the Michigan constitution was amended to forbid the use of race in admission decisions at the state’s universities, and the number of minority students on UM’s campus has plummeted.
The percentage of black undergraduate students at UM dropped from 7.03 percent in 2006 to a range of 4.41 percent to 4.7 percent for the past five years, the university said in its brief. That means about 700 fewer black students are at the university today than there were in 2006.
And those smaller numbers, the university said, have startling results: only one black female freshman in an engineering class of nearly 750 and three black students among the dental school’s 103 first-year professionals.
The brief speaks to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the pivotal justice on the issue. He has never voted for an affirmative action program, but he also has noted that the racial injustice that has marked the nation’s history has not been fully erased.
To support the use of race, Kennedy wrote in 2013, when the court sent back the University of Texas’s plan for further judicial review, a university must show that “available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.”
UM says it has for more than a decade “been actively engaged in precisely the kind of ‘serious, good-faith consideration of race-neutral alternatives’ ” that Kennedy contemplated.
Still, said the brief prepared by Washington lawyer John P. Elwood, “the university’s persistent efforts have not been sufficient to create significant opportunities for personal interaction to dispel stereotypes and to ensure that minority students do not feel isolated or that they must act as spokespersons for their race.”
The last passage echoes a line from the court’s 2003 decision.
The low numbers, Vice Provost Sellers said, leads to the biggest problem university administrators confront when they do identify and admit minority students. “The university isn’t as diverse as they thought it would be, and as a result of that, they do not feel included,” he said. “Or when they are included, they are spotlighted, so that they are seen as the exemplar of their particular group.”
In 2013, black students at the school created a Twitter hashtag, #BBUM, for Being Black at the University of Michigan, and soon, there were hundreds of comments. They were complaints of isolation and stereotyping, and the university took notice.
Schlissel, who came to the university as president in July 2014 from Brown University, has made diversity a priority, beginning a year-long program about the subject.
“Students need to learn what the world looks like from as many different perspectives as possible,” he said. “Not to convince them that someone else has the right approach and they have the wrong approach, but just to have in their minds as they are going through this period of personal and intellectual growth the notion that there are many different ways that people look at circumstances.”
There are doubters, of course, including Carl Cohen, a philosophy professor who has been on the UM faculty since 1955. He is the most well-known of those who wanted to rid the university of racial preferences — he was a leader in the 2006 referendum movement — and he says the U.S. Constitution simply doesn’t allow anything other than color-blind considerations.
“I was and remain very critical of any system in which preference is given because of race,” Cohen said. “I’m an old ACLU guy. I believe that race simply should not be allowed to count.”
Despite the protests of its leaders, he said the prohibition of racial considerations has been a good thing for the university.
“It’s much healthier now. That’s something that needs to be emphasized,” he said. “Every black student here — we’ve got plenty of them — is here on his own or her own merits, and that’s how it should be. There was a time when there was a good deal of resentment, and that resentment was swallowed. I saw it break out time and again.”
The university said it makes no sense that it can consider all sorts of things about an applicant — including special hardships, the ability to play an instrument, the skill of throwing a football — and not consider race.
“Regardless of the economic spectrum they are in, being black in the United States is a different experience than not being black in the United States, and it starts the day they are born,” Schlissel said.
Cohen is unmoved. “The Constitution of the United States finds such discrimination to be unacceptable,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything about violin players or quarterbacks, but it does say that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. My God, that’s pretty neat, and that’s the difference.”
But Cohen’s hope that all students are recognized as equal because there are no longer racial considerations is unfounded, several black students said.
Will Royster, 22, an African American senior, said one assumption about him has been replaced by another. Although he considers himself average size at 6 feet, 180 pounds, “people still ask me if I’m an athlete,” he said. “There’s an insinuation, a suggestion, that I got in by a shortcut.”
If there were more people who look like him, he said, he thinks it would be different.
No matter how the Supreme Court rules, UM will not be allowed to return to its previous policy of considering race in its holistic review. The justices ruled last term that no matter its precedents allowing race to be used in some instances, voters in the states clearly had the right to prohibit some considerations at state universities.
The university instead has implemented programs to encourage students who are first in their family to attend college, bring poor high school students to campus for short residential programs, and target middle- and high school students in underrepresented school districts to complete programs that could earn them full scholarships to the university.
This fall, the number of minority freshmen stabilized and ticked up.
But Schlissel is not sure it will be enough. “Michigan has invested 200 years worth of resources, almost, in the University of Michigan,” he said. “And it’s a spectacular resource that should be similarly available to people across the full spectrum of society.”