Michigan Campus Erupts in Debate Over Affirmative Action

Times Staff Writer

Marvin Krislov, the University of Michigan's general counsel, was teaching his class on law and corporate governance Wednesday afternoon when his cell phone rang in mid-lecture.

President Bush had just condemned the university's affirmative action admissions policy on national television and said he was going to file briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court denouncing as unconstitutional the practice of giving consideration to race in order to compose a diverse student body.

"I said, 'I'm in the middle of class, can it wait?' " Krislov recalled. "They said 'No, we need you right now to draft our response.' So I told my students, here are some problem sets, and sent them home."

So began a frenzied three days at the 31,000-student university campus, the nerve center of this tree-cloaked Midwestern city. Students on campus as well as talking heads on television proceeded to square off over the issue, which has broad implications for higher education nationwide.

About 300 students rallied Friday in support of the university in front of the graduate library, shivering in the 6-degree weather. A few anti-affirmative action protesters got into a shouting match with supporters of the policy.

Karl Leggers, a sophomore, said the university's ranks should be filled by merit and background, not by what he called racial quotas.

"You're for numbers yourself: GPA, test scores," retorted freshman Lorena de Santiago.

"Assigning points for race is simply racial profiling; it says, 'You're a minority; you're favored for admission,' " Leggers said after the rally.

Leggers, who is white, is a political science major from Redford Township, a western suburb of Detroit. He describes his family as lower middle class and dismisses the notion that increasing the number of minorities in the classroom enriches the learning experience.

"I think that's inherently racist because it assumes minority students can teach a Caucasian or another student something they don't have," Leggers said.

Not so, says De Santiago, a pre-med student from Chicago whose parents came to the United States from Mexico. "To hear people of different cultures with different ideas, it's always beneficial," she said later. "If you're in contact with the same people over and over again, you're not going to grow."

The University of Michigan's undergraduate college uses a system that assigns up to 150 points to applicants based on factors such as grade-point average and standardized test scores. It also awards one to four "legacy" points for parents or other relatives who have attended the university, 10 points for applicants coming from Michigan, 16 points for those coming from Michigan's more remote Upper Peninsula, and 20 points for being a member of a racial minority.

The law school does not use a point system, but says it takes race into account so it can establish a "critical mass" of racial diversity for each class. Both schools have been sued by white students who were denied admission, and the cases have made their way to the nation's top court.

On Thursday, the Bush administration filed two briefs with the Supreme Court harshly criticizing the university's admissions process as a quota system that is unconstitutional. The court is expected to hear the cases by early April.

In the university response that Krislov helped draft in less than four hours, university President Mary Sue Coleman said, "It is unfortunate that the president misunderstands how our admissions process works at the University of Michigan. It is a complex process that takes many factors into account and considers the entire background of each student applicant, just as the president urged."

Agnes Aleobua, a black senior from Detroit, said she would not be here without affirmative action.

"I know that I got into the University of Michigan because of policies that take into account that there were times when football coaches taught my math class, or that we didn't have drinkable water, and there was a lack of textbooks," said Aleobua, an education major who attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit's notoriously decrepit school system.

"I started my accounting and French classes without books," she said. "My global issues class didn't have a book, so we used a geography book. It just didn't fit. But affirmative action makes sure black students get equal opportunities for a good education."

The issue is being closely watched and has national implications. The Supreme Court could overturn its 1978 decision in the Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, a landmark case that determined that public universities could use race in assembling a diverse student body. Bush's decision to get involved is also seen as a litmus test of his administration on civil rights.

Michigan is considered a fairly selective university; 97% of freshmen have a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher.

Minority enrollment remained steady at 26% from 1997 to 2001. The current freshman class, not including foreign students, is 65.3% white, 11.8% Asian American, 8.9% African American, 6.1% Latino. Black enrollment has ranged from 8.1% to 9.1% in the last six years.

"On paper, I feel I was one of the more qualified applicants," said Rashad Nelms, 24, a black law school student from Bloomington, Ind. "But I did benefit from the school policy. Affirmative action brought me up to the level of my white counterparts, who benefited also from legacy points, provost discretion, donor history, going to schools that offered advanced-placement classes."

Provost discretion refers to high-ranking school administrators giving points or recommendations to certain students based on personal connections, an advantage seen benefiting primarily white applicants.

Many were taken by surprise when Bush spoke out this past week, calling Michigan's policy "fundamentally flawed."

"It's not every day that the president of the United States goes on national TV to call out your university in a fight," said Evan Caminker, associate dean for academic affairs at the university's law school. "I've gotten very little sleep."

While the black and Latino populations in metro Los Angeles are largely poor, Caminker found that the majority of poor people in the region are still white. "That doesn't add racial diversity. It adds people who have a lower level of academic preparation," he said.

Protests are not unusual on the Michigan campus; there are rallies and people on soapboxes almost every day. "The perception that there's debate raging in the halls is not the case," said Mark Griffin, a member of the law school's Black Student Alliance. "There are some activists, but it's not something that people engage in prolonged public debates about."

Senior Aleobua, who plans to apply to Michigan's law school, will be watching the Supreme Court's moves intently. If the court rules against the university, she said, "I would not be accepted to the UM Law School."

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