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Martin Luther King Day Remarks

Dr. Mary Sue Coleman
President of the University of Michigan
January 20, 2003

"Good morning and greetings to all of you — and especially to our honored guest, Dr. Grace Lee Boggs.

"Thank you for the invitation to speak this morning.

"First, I want to congratulate the 2003 MLK Symposium Planning Committee for organizing this impressive array of events. I had heard about your dedication and energy before joining the Michigan community last year. Now that I'm here, I must say that your reputation is fully deserved!

"I am really proud to be here with you at this watershead moment in the University's history. So now, I will take a few minutes to discuss the two affirmative action admissions lawsuits that the University is currently fighting. These two cases — one against our College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the other against our Law School — allege that the University unfairly and unconstitutionally favors the applications of underrepresented minorities in our admissions procedures.

"Since our opponents filed against us in 1997, we have won both of these cases at the district and appellate court levels — and soon we will make our arguments before the final arbiter, the United States Supreme Court.

"And I believe we will win. Let me tell you why...

"The last time the Supreme Court looked this closely at affirmative action admissions in higher education was in 1978, in the Bakke case. In that decision, the Court ruled that quotas are forbidden by law.

"The University of Michigan does not now, nor has it ever, employed quotas in its admissions procedures.

"The Court also said that ethnic and racial diversity within the academic community is a worthy goal, and that colleges and universities may use race as one factor among many to make admissions decisions in order to attain that goal.

"In LS&A, we consider several major variables including high school academics, test scores, leadership and community service, geographic origin, socioeconomic standing, recommendations, special talents or skills, and whether or not your parents or grandparents were alumni. We also work to diversify gender in some of our academic areas, looking for men interested in nursing, for instance, and women who want to be engineers. And, yes, we consider race, among these several criteria.

"Our Law School employs a similarly complex and wholistic approach. In its Bakke opinion, the Supreme Court included an example of an acceptable admissions system at the graduate level. That example was Harvard Law School. In ruling in our favor last May, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that our Law School admission policy is virtually indistinguishable from Harvard's.

"However, some still assert that the Law School uses quotas. Due to the characteristics of our applicant pool, we have found that our minority enrollments ranged from 12.5 to 20.1 percent over the past ten years — a variation of nearly 8 percent. Some say that the range is so narrow that we must have a secret numerical or statistical target in mind.

"This is nonsense!

"In that same time period, 11 to 15 percent of our Law School students came to Michigan from California — a range of 4 percent. And between 9.7 and 13.8 percent of our Law students have had names that begin with the letter "S" — again a range of about 4 percent. I don't believe we have a quota or numeric target for these categories, do you?

"Last week, on January 15 — which would have been Dr. King's 74th birthday — President Bush announced that he would direct the Department of Justice to file legal briefs against us, which they did the following day.

"In his remarks, I was pleased to hear the President support the importance of diversity in America's colleges and universities. And it was good to hear him acknowledge that racial prejudice is a reality in America. It also was gratifying to hear him acknowledge what our research has demonstrated — that essential values like respect, understanding, and goodwill are strengthened when students live and learn from people from many backgrounds.

"He admonished universities to seek out diversity, to consider a broad range of factors in admissions, which, as I have said, is precisely what we do.

"It was disappointing, though, to hear him characterize our policies as quotas when clearly they are not. Every applicant to Michigan competes fairly for every single seat in our classrooms and labs — just as the Supreme Court specified in Bakke.

"It also has been asserted that affirmative action confers a stigma upon those whom it benefits. I want to clear that issue up right now: If you are here, it is because you are highly qualified. It is because we know you are prepared to withstand the academic rigors. And it is because you are prepared to make a contribution back to the University community through your achievements, insight, and leadership.

"We know that minority students do better in academically rigorous environments, such as Michigan. In fact, our minority student graduation rates are the highest among the State's four-year schools — and higher than the national average for all college students. And we know that our minority alumni succeed in their professions and contribute to society at substantially the same rates as do our majority-culture graduates.

"And that's what we do here at Michigan — we give everyone the chance to build a life of substance and achievement.

"I have shared with you a number of the reasons why I believe we will win the cases, but mainly I believe we will win because we are right.

"On this most important American civil rights holiday, I want to make our bottom line crystal clear: The University of Michigan has an absolute, unwavering commitment to diversity throughout our community.

"Our country is now engaged in a robust debate, the outcome of which will directly impact every private and public American university. We cannot afford to lose, because the results will determine precisely how far open the doors of opportunity will be for all who work the hardest, do the best, and deserve an even break at getting ahead."

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