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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
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
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