Making admissions at U-M

Jan 29, 2003 at 12:00 am

At their core, the (University of) Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards and penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race.

—George Dubya, squinting at the TelePrompTer, Jan. 15, 2003

The truth has finally been exposed: George W. Bush has outed himself as a secret liberal, hell-bent on reversing decades of racial imbalance in America.

The statement above proves it. Consider what he said: Michigan discriminates based on race. If he is right, enrollment figures should show a huge imbalance between the number of minorities in the state’s population and how many are graciously allowed to pay steep tuition fees to the U-M.

Well, that’s exactly the story the numbers tell. About 14 percent of Michiganders are black. And after years of using race as a factor in admissions, their current percentage in Michigan’s student body is … 8.1 percent.

What that conclusively proves, according to the speech somebody wrote for George to read to the camera, is that the deck has to be overwhelmingly stacked in favor of the melanin-impaired. The law school is even less diverse; African-Americans are 6.7 percent of its student body. Somehow, this will come as no great shock to black folks.

That isn’t of course, what Bush meant. Frankly, his phony intellectual critique of the U-M’s admissions policies can be ignored. He was merely playing to his base, reassuring them that despite the ouster of the embarrassing Trent Lott, Dubya is still the white people’s president.

Politically, that was smart. Across Bloomingham and the rest of suburbia, there indeed are hordes of whites convinced that Ann Arbor is filling up with inferior black students who are getting dorm rooms that Biff and Muffy deserve. They’ve felt that way for years, and now they have reason to hope our highest court will roll back the clock ... oops ... reverse this miscarriage of justice.

That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court is getting ready to decide two cases regarding admissions policies at the U-M, cases most believe will be seen as landmark decisions by universities all across the country.

Now this won’t be the first time the black-robed wonders have decided this issue. Twenty-five years ago, in a case commonly known as Bakke, the Supreme Court decided that while quotas were unconstitutional, race could be taken into account as a factor in deciding who gets into college.

But that was a Supreme Court that included Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, and now we have a court led by the five dwarfs, who, you may remember, spit on the Constitution and installed Dubya in the White House.

Odds of them doing the right thing don’t seem very good. But nobody really knows what the court will do. They could, conceivably, reaffirm Bakke, and say the way Michigan makes its decisions is just fine. They could take the position that any kind of minority preferences are unfair. Or, perhaps most likely, they could issue a vague decision striking down Michigan’s current procedure without clear guidelines for what’s allowed. That would guarantee more lawsuits.

For most progressives, the situation seems clear-cut. Affirmative action is, by definition, good. Any critical examination of U-M’s admissions policies is unhelpful and probably racist. That indeed is how all my liberal friends feel … right up to the time their kid is turned down by the University of Michigan.

The fact is that the U-M has a complex and confusing undergraduate admissions policy which few outside the institution understand. This is not accidental. For many years, it has been a public institution with an Ivy League attitude toward the poor taxpaying slobs who make it possible. Thanks to this usual arrogance, the university, until recent months, did precious little to explain how its admissions policies function.

And they aren’t easy to explain. Applicants are judged according to a many-factored “point system” which indeed gives “underrepresented minorities,” including those of Native American or Hispanic backgrounds, 20 extra points on a 150-point scale.

Slightly more than half the total score is determined, as conservatives would like it all to be, by how well the applicant did in high school. However, Michigan also gives 20 extra points for students who get athletic scholarships, and the same if you have a “socioeconomic disadvantage” which, in English, presumably means your family was poor.

Other, though fewer, bonus points may be awarded if you come from an obscure state like Idaho, or the even more obscure Upper Peninsula of Michigan. You can also get points if your grandmother went to U-M, if you are a man who wants to study nursing, or a woman who wants to be an engineer. You get points if you went to a crummy high school (however that is decided) or write a spiffy essay. Finally, there is a mysterious category called “provost’s discretion,” worth 20 points.

It is hard to avoid the deep suspicion that all this could easily be manipulated to arbitrarily admit or deny many applicants.

There are those — some of whom are black — who honestly believe all racial preferences are improper, even demeaning. Yet who thinks the number of minority students would increase if affirmative action is struck down?

Late in his life, I asked Coleman Young what he thought about this. He lifted an eyebrow. “[Conservatives] want to take some guy who has been chained in the basement for years, unshackle him, take him to the starting gate and say, OK, now you go race against this track star. Level playing field.”

I won’t repeat what he said next. It did, however, include a vigorous verb describing what’ll happen to our society if we don’t find a way to do diversity right.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]