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"Affirmative Action and Higher Education: Before and After the Supreme Court Rulings on the Michigan Cases"
28 January 2003

Wrong take on admissions

By Nancy Cantor
Written for the Chicago Tribune

Integration takes hard work, especially when we have little other than collective fear, stereotypes and sins upon which to build. It is time America sees affirmative action on college campuses for what it is: a way to enrich the educational and intellectual lives of white students as well as students of color. We must not abandon race as a consideration in admissions.

The debate now before the U.S. Supreme Court over admissions at the University of Michigan is about the relative advantages people are getting, and it is a debate that misses the point. College admission has always been about relative advantage because a college education is a scarce resource, and the stakes are high.

In this era of emphasis on standardized tests, it may be easy to forget that colleges and universities have always taken into account many other aspects of students' experiences, including the geographic region from which they come, their families' relationship to the institution and their leadership experiences.

It is appropriate, and indeed critical, for the best institutions in the world to create the broadest possible mix of life experiences. Race is a fundamental feature of life in America, and it has an enormous impact on what a person has to contribute on campus. College admissions should be race-conscious to take the cultural and historical experiences of all students--Native American, African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and white--and build on these in an educational setting. President Bush was wrong when he labeled the affirmative-action programs at the University of Michigan "quota systems." In announcing his decision to oppose the Michigan programs before the Supreme Court, he made remarks that are damaging in their potential to mislead the public.

There are no quotas at Michigan. All students compete for all seats. Race is used as a plus factor, along with other life experiences and talents, just as the president has suggested should happen. The percentages of students of color at Michigan vary annually.

Bush says he believes college admissions should be "race neutral," and he says he supports the principles of Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke. He cannot have it both ways. Race is not neutral in the Bakke decision; it is front and center, just as it was nearly 50 years ago in Brown vs. Board of Education. In both cases, the Supreme Court urged our nation to boldly and straightforwardly take on the issue of race. The president wants to walk away from it.

The Bush administration seems to believe in "affirmative access"--bringing students of color to the table--although the president is not clear how this is to be achieved. But the decision by Justice Lewis F. Powell in Bakke brought more than students of color to the table. It brought race in America to the table, urging educators to join hands in creating a truly integrated society of learners.

How are we to fulfill the dream of Brown and Bakke, to build a positive story of race in America, if we are told to ignore race--to concoct systems constructed around proxies for race such as class rank in racially segregated public school districts or euphemisms such as "cultural traditions" that both avoid our past and fail to value the possibility that race can play a constructive role in our nation's future?

President Bush's moral sidestepping, his desire to have us walk away from the subject of race, will not work to create the inclusive and interactive society he claims to want to achieve.

We want to include, not exclude. We want to use race as a positivecategory, as one of many aspects of a life we consider when we sit down to decide which students to invite to our table.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was the provost of the University of Michigan at the time the affirmative action cases were filed

Copyright (c) 2003, Chicago Tribune