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A Michigan Legacy:
Ensuring Diversity and Democracy on Campus
from Michigan Alumnus, Summer 1998

By Nancy Cantor
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

James B. Angell, the third president of the University of Michigan, delivered a commencement address in 1879 with a distinctly modern ring. The speech, titled "The Higher Education: A Plea for Making it Accessible to All," was prophetic in the way it reminded the gathered audience of the fundamental role of public universities in furthering our nation's democratic project.

"Good learning is always catholic and generous," he said. "It welcomes the humblest votary of science and bids him kindle his lamp freely at the common shrine. It frowns on caste and bigotry. It spurns the artificial distinctions of conventional society. It greets all comers whose intellectual gifts entitle them to admission to the goodly fellowship of cultivated minds. It is essentially democratic in the best sense of that term."

Few would disagree with his praise for democracy in higher education, especially when stated in the ringing terms of his time: "God forbid that the day should ever come when the spirit of snobbishness or aristocracy or pride of wealth should rule in our college halls."

Yet, today the University of Michigan is fighting to preserve Angell's vision. Our policies for admitting students are being challenged, and we find ourselves in a familiar place, prominent in a national debate, this time centered on ways to ensure access to educational opportunity and diversity on college campuses. As in Angell's era, this is a debate with considerable potential to change the face of our campus and the course of our society. As high as the stakes are, and as charged are the positions of reasonable people on both sides, we should not lose hope, because universities are the rightful places for such a debate, and the University of Michigan is rightfully, again, at the vanguard.

A look back at Angell's long tenure as University president provides a critical and salutary context within which to regard this contemporary debate, because he focused considerable energy on breaking down the geographic and classs boundaries that at the time made a Michigan education an unattainable dream for many. He worked very hard to enroll students from a broader band of society, though he could not, of course, follow his inclination to admit "all comers whose intellectual gifts entitle them to admission."

Nor can we. This year, for example, Michigan received 21,000 applications to fill about 5,100 places in the freshman class. From among those applications, which already represent a highly select group, we must thoughtfully select our freshmen, admitting only those who can clearly flourish here and sadly turning away many talented students. For this purpose, we took at grades and test scores, but we also search for talent broadly, remembering that merit resides also in unconventional skills and in the potential to turn diverse life experiences into insights in the classroom.

The selectivity of our admission process requires that we think carefully about what we are trying to do and about the world for which we are educating our students. Here again, Angell had an answer for a similar question raised in the 1880s. "Let not a misapplication of the laissez-faire doctrine in political economy, which has its proper place, lead us to the fatal mistake of building up pedantic aristocracy," he said. This University would be dull, he argued, if we passively received onlv those who found it easy co be admitted.

Instead, he wanted this great public University to reach out forcefully and bring to campus sons and daughters, rich and poor, from across this state and from many states. We did then, and we do now, accord special weight in our admissions process to the economic backgrounds and place of residency of our applicants.

To many, Angell's activism of the last century seems sensible, whereas the contemporary emphasis on race seems incorrect. We disagree. We work to ensure racial and ethnic diversity because race matters in this society, just as wealth mattered then and still matters today. So much in American life adheres specifically to race that the experience of being black, brown, or white in America has the power to divide if we do nothing and the great potential to teach and unite if we reach out to each ocher. Just as the great democratic project for Angell hinged on economics and geography, so today does the vitality of our campus and of our democracy hinge on racial and ethnic pluralism.

For Angell, there were clearly compelling interests served by affirmatively pursuing a diverse student body. As he stated then, education is a life-changing opportunity that must be shared as broadly as possible. Today, as back then, a world-class education opens doors to economic and social mobility. Only recently have we as a nation truly opened those doors to our talented students of color, graduating the future leaders of an increasingly pluralistic society.

In doing so, we also have greatly enhanced the educational opportunities for all of our students, building, as Angell predicted, a lively democracy in which students can challenge each other by virtue of the variety of their life experiences. College is arguably the best time co explore the boundaries of one's habits of mind, to stretch outside of that which is familiar, to change one's self by observing others. But students, like the rest of us, are not likely to explore terrain outside the familiar if, when they look around, they see only their own reflections.

Half a century ago, the GI Bill radically altered the landscape of life experiences represented on college campuses. Today, affirmative action in college admissions has begun to accomplish a similar transformation by bringing together those who otherwise often live apart, without the possibility of educating each other.

That possibility for coming together on campus brings us to what may be the most compelling reason for pursuing a diverse student body: the societal interest in carving out havens for learning to live together. As Angell said, our great public universities are the essence of democratic living; we are the proving grounds for whether our very divided society can come together and engage. Getting along isn't easy, just as learning from others isn't automatic. The vast majority of our white students and an increasing fraction of our students of color come from highly segregated school and home environments. They come here to learn the hard task of crossing the boundaries of race in America, to engage across what Angell called the "artificial distinctions of conventional society."

Sadly, we, like the society from which we come, have not had long to cross the lines of race and live together comfortably. Now, we see our sister institutions in California and Texas, where affirmative action has been eliminated from the admission process with disastrous effect, and we worry.

We worry for the legacy of James B. Angell, and we worry because, although we have weathered many debates over the years, the consequences of this one could well mark our nation for generations to come. We worry and we wonder: Who will build an integrated society, if not Michigan and the nation's other prestigious public universities?

Laura M. Calkins, assistant research scientist at the Bentley Historical Library, provided archival material used in this article.

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