GOP Torpeding Affirmative Action

July 30, 2004
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LANSING — Republicans in Michigan’s House of Representatives recently staged a sneak attack against college affirmative action by tacking a last-minute rider onto the 2004-2005 Higher Education Appropriation Act.

Placed on the last line of the 37-page bill, the amendment titled Sec. 1303 declared, “No state institution of higher education shall receive funding under this act if the state institution of higher education discriminates against, or grants preferential treatment to, admission applicants on the basis of race, religion, creed, or national origin.”

In a year that has seen affirmative action in Michigan survive a day in the U.S. Supreme Court, plus an abortive petition drive to place the matter on the ballot in November, Rep. Leon Drolet, R-Macomb County, introduced the amendment after the House voted 55-48 to approve the $1.7 billion higher education budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Earlier this year, Drolet helped spearhead both the petition drive and the federal court attack against affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

His amendment to the higher ed budget was approved by a wider margin than the overall budget — 57-44 — with eight representatives not voting, one being State Rep. Glenn Steil, R-Cascade.

Thirty-eight democrats voted against the bill, including Rep. Michael Sak, R-Grand Rapids, with four voting for it — a split that resulted in a brief shoving match on the house floor among Detroit-area Democrats.

Fifty-three Republicans supported the amendment, including eight from West Michigan. Six Republicans opposed the amendment, including Mike Pumford, of Newaygo, and Doug Hart, of Rockford.

“This reeked of politics,” Hart said. “When you look at polls in lily-white communities, it’s apparent that it’s a winning issue. I think we have some politicians in Lansing who live in Mayberry-like communities who think that if you run against affirmative action, you’re running against, quote-unquote, elitism and reverse racism — and that’s the myth a lot of people have embraced.”

Threatened by the amendment — which was not present in the Senate version of the bill and is not expected to appear on the final version that will be presented to Gov. Jennifer Granholm — is U-M’s $320 million appropriation.

“The University of Michigan is a global treasure, it is an institution that Michiganders should be proud of,” Hart said. “To flippantly defund this institution through an amendment on the floor of the House without an issue like this being considered through debate in the context of committee, I thought was unthinkable.

“I’m saddened that the leaders of my party, the party of Lincoln, would go out of their way to put their fingers in the eyes of African Americans,” he continued. “It’s obviously an issue that African Americans feel strongly about, and to wage war on something they care so deeply about — this is why the party that freed the slaves can’t even get 10 percent of that race at the ballot box.”

Although all an analyst with the House Fiscal Agency was able to say on how the amendment could affect Michigan’s 14 other public universities is that it will certainly become the subject of a lawsuit, the initiative has added new fuel to an ongoing debate on local college and university campuses.

“I don’t believe (the amendment) is going to survive conference committee,” Grand Valley State University president Mark Murray said. “And I think our university greatly benefits when we have individuals from different backgrounds and experiences coming to the university.”

The important debate, according to Murray, is that of group identity vs. individual identity.

“The American creed is that individual identity ultimately trumps and ultimately is the most important issue,” he said. “But I think it is a disservice to pretend group identity is nonexistent or doesn’t matter. It does matter to be an African American. It does matter to be a white male. And to ignore that reality is to fail to be realistic about the community and social infrastructure and networks that exist.”

Individual assessment, Murray said, should still be the primary basis of assessment for college and university admissions, but “who we are as a member of a group is still relevant and still a legitimate topic for consideration.”

“This has been a hyper-charged issue for years,” Murray said. “But the hyper-sensitivities and tensions around that issue don’t in any way diminish its importance and the need to get it up on the table and continue the discussions.”

“I think one of the logical places where those conversations are going on is our campuses across America,” Western Michigan University president Judy Bailey added. “We are microcosms of the greater society.”

Area private colleges have been active observers of the hot button issue within the public universities and political circles.

“The legislature’s arguments were very visceral,” Aquinas College president Harry Knopke said. “The arguments were hardly studied, which is unfortunate on one hand, but also revealing.”

Knopke, whose school hosts the Woodrick Institute for the Study of Racism and Diversity, recently participated in a six-member panel of local college presidents held at Calvin College on the subject of affirmative action.

“The level of argumentation and thought on one side was interesting,” Knopke said. “But on the other side, the level of emotional involvement in the issue based on the part of one panelist was very revealing also. In essence, it suggested the reasons why the two sides are so polarized.”

Calvin College president Gaylen Byker takes pride in his school’s diversity (see related story) within the student body, faculty and alumni — accomplished without the aid of affirmative action.

Calvin is also unique in that it has achieved ethnic and geographical diversity while maintaining its religious identity, as a result of recruiting through its affiliation with the Christian Reformed Church. The school has recently brought in record amounts of international students, as well as a diverse base of Native Americans from reservations, Hispanics from Los Angeles and the southwest, and African Americans from the nation’s urban metropolises, while not sacrificing any academic standards in admissions.

“I think that networking and getting kids ready to go to college is a great strategy for attracting them as opposed to changing the admission standards,” Byker explained. “Most of our minority and international students are top students; they don’t need any special admission criteria.”

Byker points to outreach programs like Calvin’s Pathways to Possibilities and Entrada, both aimed at inner-city children, the first locally and the other nationally, as alternatives to affirmative action.

Hope College recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation, which — according to Hope professor Herbert Dershem — “will be used to encourage enrollment among members of minority groups and women” in computer science, engineering and mathematics.

Present within the higher education budgets presented by both sides of the legislature was an appropriation for new affirmative action initiatives, the Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks programs.

Michigan’s constitution declares the state’s public universities as autonomous — an issue fraught with potential litigation likely to come up when the budget conference committee debates Droulet’s amendment.

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