By: Michael Hartt
Last month, the Supreme Court made two landmark decisions that will determine the future of affirmative action. These cases – Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admission v. University of North Carolina – were unique because both the plaintiffs and defendants claimed to be fighting for the success of minority students. While the cases may not impact the University of Michigan's already race-neutral admissions process, their preeminence should compel the university to not only further diversify its student body, but also expand its role.
Throughout the cases, the University of Michigan was frequently cited for the demographic shift it experienced after the enactment of a 2006 state constitutional amendment banning affirmative action. Both Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayer referenced the university in their concurring opinions to the majority and minority, respectively. Thomas, in support of banning affirmative action, referenced an article describing the University's 2021 incoming class as “among the university’s most racially and ethnically diverse classes, with 37% of first-year students identifying as persons of color.” Sotomayer, in support of affirmative action, drew attention to the decline in proportional enrollment of some underrepresented minorities after the ban went into effect. The University’s Black enrollment fell from approximately seven percent in 2006 to four percent in 2021, but is a public university in a state with a population that is more than 14 percent Black.
Since the Supreme Court decisions were released, Michigan students have been peppered with emails from administrators expressing their commitment to continuing efforts to build a diverse student body. Consider’s staff reported emails from the deans of the Ross School of Business and Ford School of Public Policy, as well as the University president. While these emails were well-intentioned, and an important symbol of solidarity, they fell short. We need action.
Diversity is the lifeblood of any enriching college experience, and the University of Michigan is sorely lacking in it. Black students make up four percent of our enrollment, 15 percent of our student body self-identifies as conservative, and students from families in the top 20 percent of income quartiles make up far more of the student body than those from the bottom 80 percent.
While I give great credit to the generously funded initiatives that have been designed to increase representation – such as the Wolverine Pathways Scholarship, Engineering OnRamp, and MREACH in Ross – they have not done enough. The University should more boldly invest in middle and high school education programs for underrepresented students, while also more carefully noting the significance of underrepresented students’ admissions essays, in line with their prerogative through the majority decision. With its increasingly prosperous financial circumstances, the University has the ability to create a diverse pathway of applicants with both quantitative and qualitative indicators of merit.
By focusing its educational mission more broadly, the University would also be expanding its influence outside of elite academic circles, and further democratizing education. It is important to note how few students get access to the resources of highly selective universities. Just six percent of all college students attend a school with an acceptance rate of 25 percent or less, according to the New York Times. And that figure is calculated out of only the 60 percent of people who pursue a college degree at all.
Whatever the University chooses to do, it should carefully consider the heightened media coverage it received to determine its next steps. Our institution has the opportunity to exemplify its status as a leader, not only in terms of who it admits, but also as it relates to its broader role in society. As it contrives its next move, will we allow empty words to suffice, or demand meaningful action?