The University of Michigan has a race problem.
“Open it up! Or we’ll shut it down!” chanted half a dozen black students at the Board of Regents meeting yesterday.
Their frustrations are getting national attention.
The Black Student union has led protests on campus and online.
Their #BBUM Twitter campaign (Being Black at U of M) has gone viral.
They’re fed up, they say, by a school that boasts about a diverse community, yet where just roughly 5% of some 28,000 undergraduate students are black.
That leaves them feeling like “the token blacks,” fighting perceived assumptions that all black students are athletes, from Detroit, or were only admitted because of their race.
Here's a clip from a Martin Luther King Jr. Day protest earlier this year:
University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman says she gets it.
“We hear loud and clear that students of color feel isolated and marginalized and that our frequently declared ‘commitment to diversity’ is perceived as disingenuous,” said Coleman.
Why is it so hard to have more black students?
Black Student Union members sat in the audience during the Regents meeting with duct tape over their mouths, the words “Go Blue!” penned on the tape – likely a reference to a previous protest, where a BSU member said all Michigan students “bleed the same colors: Maize and Blue.”
They’ve been meeting weekly with school administrators, says senior Tyrell Collier of Grand Rapids.
"What we've been talking about the most is availability of scholarships for African-American students, as well as further recruitment efforts in metropolitan areas that have a high population of African-American students,” Collier said.
Collier says he knows the University feels like creating a diverse, selective student body is tougher after Michigan voters outlawed race-based affirmative action, also known as Proposal 2.
As Coleman puts it, “we have struggled in the wake of Proposal 2 and the ban on affirmative action. We know that.”
“We reached out to colleagues at other public universities with similar restrictions, putting their best practices into place here,” says Coleman. “But our efforts still have not achieved what we need to achieve.”
Yet to students like Collier, the “no affirmative action makes this tougher” talking point is starting to feel like an excuse.
“That sort of point is a little insulting to me,” says Collier, “because there are students out there who are capable of attending the University of Michigan. I think those students are just not being reached."
What the school says it wants: more minorities, better recruitment
Here’s one thing both the school and Black Student Union agree on: Making the Michigan campus an easier place to be black is going to take big changes.
President Coleman’s remarks yesterday were one step.
Coleman called for a few specific actions, including a more diverse, accepting campus with more minority students, and a black student center that doesn’t feel like an afterthought – or a hike.
“We will restore the current Trotter Multicultural Student Center,” says Coleman, “while identifying a central campus site and planning for a new center.”
Previously, the school’s provost, Martha Pollack, published a response on Jan. 16 to “the challenges we face with issues of race…”
She pledged to make a change in her own office.
“In the next few weeks, I will create a leadership position to advance recruitment and retention goals. Some prospective…minority students who are accepted by the university choose to enroll elsewhere, and we recognize that we need to take action, within the law, to encourage those students to enroll here.”
The actual job description the Regents approved yesterday is a little different. It will “focus on core values of diversity, excellence and access,” by working with admissions, financial aid, new student programs and the registrar's office.
Reforming the system...maybe?
And if you were going to do a better job of getting black students you admit to actually come to Michigan, that all makes sense.
You’d want someone working with each of those departments to make sure the admissions pipeline to talented middle schoolers, high schoolers, and black communities in general was stronger, that the financial aid office understood their problems, and that new student programs were actually effective at making students feel less like “tokens” and more like integral members of campus.
While some schools, like California's public university system, get a lot of praise for their moves after affirmative action was outlawed in their states, specifically by “expanding an already-robust set of programs to identify and nurture promising low-income students,” as the New York Times reported last May, it’s still a tough battle.
After all, race is hardly a non-issue on UC campuses.
This video from UCLA students is approaching two million views on YouTube:
So how can schools like Michigan still abide by legal bans on affirmative action – and therefore considering race when they make up their incoming classes – while still tackling “diversity” issues heads on?
That’s exactly what a bunch of lawyers from across the country, including some who have argued this issue in front of the Supreme Court, will debate at U of M this weekend when they get together for a symposium on campus diversity.
Meanwhile, the conversations on race at Michigan will continue. The frustration is real.
And ultimately, the school’s success will be determined by whether they can live up to their commitments to be a diverse, world-class institution.