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The Diversity Vote: The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative

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Come November, Michigan voters will have an important referendum to consider in the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), one that will have a hard-hitting impact on higher education if it passes. The MCRI proposes to ban affirmative action in government hiring and university admissions in Michigan. In 1996, California passed Proposition 209, a similar initiative to the MCRI and as a result, reduced dramatically the proportion of African American and Latino students in the University of California system, especially at the two most selective campuses, UC Berkeley and UCLA. This fall, UCLA reached a crisis point when 100 African American freshmen enrolled out of a class of 4850, down from 270 in 1995; the decline in the number of African American students along with other minorities on campus is due in large measure to California's ban on affirmative action a decade ago.

For college and university campuses, a decrease in minorities means a decrease in diversity. As an educator, I fear the general public does not fully appreciate how damaging a decrease in diversity can be to a student population, how essential an ingredient it is to higher education, and how referendums like the MCRI derail it.

Many are familiar with the arguments that connect affirmative action efforts to promoting equality of opportunity, which is central to a healthy democracy. Less well known is what affirmative action does for education.

To understand how it affects education, we can look to race conscious admissions practices. Simply put, without the ability to consider race in recruiting and admitting students, the student body will be less diverse. This will likely happen if the MCRI is passed, because the MCRI will take away the ability to ensure a diverse student body. And a less diverse student body limits the educational choices available to students, which manifests in two important ways.

First, it constrains the types of interactions students have on campus and the personal relationships they develop. In turn, this constraint reduces the exposure to different viewpoints and perspectives. Although any one student's opinion cannot be perfectly predicted by knowing just his or her race alone, significant differences in opinions on key political and social issues exist between race groups. Research has shown that being exposed to opinions differentiated by race improves one's critical thinking, deepens one's understanding of important issues that face our world, and cultivates a willingness to participate in the democratic process. In short, the absence of diversity limits a student's exposure to elements that improve their democratic sensibilities.

Second, a less diverse student body is associated with reduced options in the curriculum. By contrast, as the racial diversity of a student body increases so do the numbers of courses and co-curricular opportunities that address issues of race and ethnicity. This addition to an undergraduate curriculum takes on many forms and most of them provide students with a chance to understand better what it means to be a member of a diverse society, particularly a multi-racial democracy.

Having these opportunities available on campus does not guarantee that students will actually take advantage of them. After all, educators can only hope that their guidance will steer students toward making wise choices. Nor will expanding choices steer students toward certain political leanings. Indeed, seeking greater racial diversity in higher education is not meant to produce specific ideological outcomes but to widen the range of educational opportunities that support democratic interests. Even those students who choose to resist or oppose these opportunities will at least become more aware of the level of concern regarding diversity, a topic that will be unavoidable during their life time.

The U.S. Supreme Court voted in favor of diversity with its 2003 decision on Grutter v. Bollinger, one of two cases involving race sensitive admissions practices at the University of Michigan, but the MCRI looks to undermine that decision. For voters, eliminating race conscious practices that have already been ruled constitutional will reduce the capacity of colleges and universities to expand choices for students. Making a wider range of choices available will in the long run better serve the democratic interests of our nation. As our nation's population continues to shift toward greater diversity, having these opportunities will be even more important. The public can help higher education by voting for diversity and by defeating the MCRI, thereby enabling students to become better prepared citizens.


Mitchell J. Chang is an Associate Professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, and the author of Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Colleges and Universities (Stanford University Press, 2003), cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2003 decision on Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld race conscious admissions practices at the University of Michigan.

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Mitchell J. Chang is an Associate Professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, and the author of Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Colleges and Universities (Stanford University Press, (more...)
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The Diversity Vote: The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative

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