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La Liga de Las Americas

University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman sets the record straight about MI affirmative action ballot initiative

By Alan Abrams
La Prensa Senior Correspondent

UM’s Dr. Coleman with Miguel Andrés Abreu


Mary Sue Coleman, the first woman to serve as president of the University of Michigan has become one of the leading spokespersons against the controversial Michigan affirmative action ballot initiative, on the ballot this November.


While the provisions of the proposed amendment would be detrimental to the gains made by Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans and other minorities, it would also adversely affect women in their continuing struggle for equality.


President Coleman took time off from her busy schedule on July 7 to talk to La Prensa by e-mail about this serious issue.  Here is the full text of the interview.


La Prensa: How would you describe the Michigan ballot initiative?


President Coleman:  The ballot initiative is a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would forbid any use of affirmative action throughout the public sector, in employment, contracting, and education at all levels.

“It was brought from California to Michigan by Ward Connerly, who led the campaign for California’s Prop 209, a constitutional amendment virtually identical to his Michigan proposal. He succeeded there, and Prop 209 went into effect in 1996. His initiative in Michigan is financed overwhelmingly by people and corporations outside of Michigan.


Despite its name, the Michigan initiative is not about civil rights. It is about closing doors, rather than opening them. I believe it would turn back the clock in Michigan, in every part of the public sector—employment, contracting, and education at all levels.

I wish we lived in a time when we no longer needed to be concerned about racial, ethnic, and gender injustices, in a society free of inequities, with fully integrated neighborhoods, jobs and schools. But we all know there is so much more to do before we can say we have succeeded.


Affirmative action is one—just one—of the many different tools we can use to help make a difference in society. In 2003, the University of Michigan defended its use all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, because we believe it helps us achieve a diverse student body that reflects our society, and a majority of the Court’s justices agreed with us.

The Court ruled that diversity is a compelling interest to the nation, and that we would need to be able to use affirmative action to achieve it—maybe for another 25 years. That was only three years ago.
We must pay attention to race. We must pay attention to ethnicity. We must pay attention to socioeconomic class. If we look away, the future is bleak, and one need only visit the state of
California to see what happens when we go down a road that ignores these factors.
Here’s an example of Prop 209’s impact in higher education.
The state of California—the most diverse state in this country, with the fifth-largest economy in the world—is educating fewer and fewer underrepresented minority students, at a time when its citizenry is growing more and more diverse.


Before 209 banned affirmative action in higher education admissions, underrepresented minorities made up 38 percent of California high school graduates and 21 percent of the University of California’s  entering freshman class. Within eight years, underrepresented minorities accounted for 45 percent of California’s high school graduates, but only 19 percent of incoming UC freshmen.


La Prensa: How will the ballot initiative affect women and minorities?


President Coleman: Based on the experience in California under Prop 209, we know that the Michigan initiative would likely shut down programs that increase educational access, opportunity, and success in all public employment, contracting, and education.


If we leave behind talented Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans and women, we will be abandoning the state’s and the country’s future.


La Prensa: What are the biggest accomplishments of affirmative action?


President Coleman: Affirmative action is an essential, successful, moderate tool that helps our society deal with the inequities that still exist. We have experienced amazing change in our society, with the help of tools such as affirmative action. For instance, the rate of minority homeownership has increased substantially, as have the ranks of minority contractors and other business owners; tradesmen and women; doctors, lawyers, and other professionals; managers and executives. The very best educational institutions have opened their doors more widely to talented and energetic students of all races and ethnicities, and the learning experience for all college students has been improved by increased diversity in and out of the classroom.


 We know from research that students who study in diverse educational environments think better, learn more, and grow to become better citizens. Affirmative action has had a major role in making this possible. Research also tells us that people who experience a diverse environment in college more frequently choose, as adults, to break down existing patterns of segregation, live in integrated neighborhoods, send their children to integrated schools, and work in integrated workplaces.


La Prensa: How would the U-M look without affirmative action?


President Coleman: Based on the impact of California’s Prop 209, we know that it would limit outreach and recruitment, mentoring and financial aid available to hard-working and capable Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans, and women of all races and ethnicities. We have looked at the question very carefully, and determined that our underrepresented minority (Latino, African American, and Native American, combined) enrollment could fall from about 14% to about 4%. This would be a monumental loss.


In ruling in the University’s favor, the Supreme Court said, ‘The path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.’ Higher education is the most reliable pathway, and the Michigan initiative would make it impassable for growing numbers of minority students.
La Prensa: How will Michigan be affected if the ballot initiative is approved?
President Coleman: I believe the Michigan initiative will only worsen an already tragic situation in race relations. The U.S. Census found that Michigan is home to two of the nation’s most segregated cities (Livonia and Detroit), and, according to the FBI, home to the third-highest rate of hate crimes in the country.


And I believe the Michigan initiative would hurt efforts to improve the state and national economy. We face an acute shortage of professional workers, especially scientists and engineers, doctors and nurses. Michigan lags behind much of the country in the percentage of citizens with a college education.


 In order for Michigan’s economy to recover and compete globally, we need to educate as many of our citizens as possible. If we do not train more women and people of color, our economy will fail to change and grow with the times, and we will not be able to compete. In education, it would go far beyond college admissions, support, and financial aid programs. For instance, today, the California organization headed up by Mr. Connerly is fighting a legal case that is even trying to close down magnet schools in Los Angeles, saying they are prohibited by his Prop 209.





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