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U-M's Push for Diversity Serves All, from Students to Businesses

B. Joseph White, Interim President of the University of Michigan, authored the following opinion piece which appeared in the Detroit Free Press February 1, 2002.

For the first time in a decade, we Americans find ourselves in a tough economic environment. Although forecasts are optimistic for pulling the nation out of this current recession, it's important to remind ourselves about one thing that enables American business to compete effectively: a workforce and management corps that is diverse, multitalented and prepared to operate successfully in the global economy.

And, at this time of the year when we celebrate Black History Month following the recognition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is especially relevant to focus on the special role universities play in preparing young people for participation and leadership in a diverse world.

As dean of the University of Michigan Business School, a couple of years ago I surveyed our Corporate Advisory Board to identify what they and their companies most value about their relationship with the school. Their answer: the opportunity to recruit a diverse group of talented young people who understand how to lead and manage a diverse workforce.

America is the greatest and most diverse democracy ever seen, with a population that reflects an extraordinary array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, and social and economic experiences. A quarter of the nation's 281.4 million residents now identify themselves as members of a minority racial or multiracial group, and that proportion is increasing rapidly. Our government, business and social institutions increasingly reflect the tapestry of races and cultures that make up this remarkable nation.

In my 30 years as a faculty member, business executive, business school dean and corporate board member, I have come to the conclusion that one mission of our university is to serve as an extraordinary gateway of opportunity to our diverse democracy and to the global economy in which we compete. A core question we face is how to do the best possible job of educating the talented young people who come to us and how to develop them so that they will be effective citizens and leaders.

If you think about the environment into which we launch young people, it is clear that the only way to ensure they are prepared is to create a diverse human environment in which they can learn. Our students need to interact with people from other countries and different racial groups; with men and women, poets and engineers, people from rural and urban areas, liberals and conservatives, and more. As a teacher, and as a leader, I am acutely aware that the experiences gained from these interactions cannot be learned from a book.

At Michigan, we assemble a talented and diverse student body in a variety of ways. We receive thousands of applications from well-qualified students, many more than we can admit and accommodate. We also reach out to communities, such as rural counties and inner cities, from which we see relatively few applicants. Then we sift through this outstanding applicant pool, weighing first and foremost academic preparation but also considering a variety of personal factors that contribute to the environment we are trying to create. For example, we place special value on male applicants to our School of Nursing because they increase the diversity of the student body in this field where women constitute the vast majority of students.

Where does affirmative action fit in? It is, quite simply, the most effective tool we have for assembling a diverse human group when it comes to race. There is no other method to enable us to simultaneously achieve the educational environment essential to preparing students for our diverse democracy and the global economy while ensuring that every admitted student has the ability to succeed academically at the University of Michigan.

American business leaders agree with us. More than 30 top corporations, led by General Motors, filed "friend of the court" briefs in support of our admissions policies in the two lawsuits we are fighting. I don't believe that these executives are motivated exclusively by social conscience. These men and women are judged each day on the performance of their companies. They understand that excellent performance in a global economy requires a diverse workforce and leaders who are competent and comfortable with such a workforce.

When I was an MBA student at Harvard in 1969, there were only two women and two African-American students in my 80-person section. There was one African-American graduate in the Michigan MBA class of 1967, Cleve Christophe, who is today a successful investor and good friend of mine and of the School.

Were those the good old days? Hardly. Was the educational experience as rich and full for all students then as it is now? Not a chance.

The gains we have made in the past 30 years in bringing qualified students of all races into our academic programs and then into the mainstream of American society and the global economy are enormous. I think our success in this regard is one important reason so many students want to get a great education at the University of Michigan and so many companies want to recruit Michigan graduates.

They really are prepared to be the "leaders and best" in tomorrow's world.

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