I didn't pay much attention when I first heard about the lawsuits against the University of Michigan. Every year that I was an undergraduate, a few letters protesting the admission policies were written to the college paper by angry rich white kids, and I counted myself among the righteous liberal elect who saw the letters as racist sour grapes. It seemed clear-cut: The issue was about increasing enrollments of underprivileged people of color, and I was for it.
But I'm finding that I didn't really understand what the issue was at all, and from the coverage I've heard on the Supreme Court's decision, I don't think many other people do either.
I graduated in 1994 with honors. I would characterize my time there as productive. I wrote for the Michigan Daily and became the environmental reporter for a short while. I interviewed a Native woman from the Artic National Wildlife Refuge for Canadian television. I studied in Spain. I drank coffee and walked up and down Washtenaw Avenue in a long black trench coat modeled after the current avant-garde leftist fashions. I was, in essence, a typical U of M student.
And, almost certainly, I was also a beneficiary of the University's diversity-based admissions systems recently ruled upon by the US Supreme Court. Because that system does not reward preferences for race alone.
My high school was small and rural and poor. I grew up in Mason County, five hours northwest of Ann Arbor, where relatively few students attend college at all. When I mentioned wanting to attend U of M to my high school counselor, she pointed out the safety and comfort of a number of smaller state colleges. The implication was that people from Mason County didn't go to U of M.
I persisted, though, largely because I wanted to be different from the rest of the people in my town—more erudite, a master of obscure knowledge and counter-cultural ideas. When I sent out my application in the fall of 1989, it was ranked and scored, and points were added to my name because I came from a poor rural school district and a working-class family. But I didn't know that. All I knew is that I got in.
But the current brouhaha surrounding the University's admissions decisions has made me re-examine the issue. Being a part of U of M's diversity policy feels strange. I remember sitting in my room preparing my application, sweating over my essay and later interviewing with the dean of the college over the phone.
Now I picture another part of the admissions process, one in which my name was connected to my parents' income, my rural high school in an underrepresented county and my in-state status. Points were added, and perhaps I moved up on a list, surpassing someone from Grosse Pointe with higher grades and a better ACT score. I felt good when I thought that I was admitted due to my own efforts. I'm not too sure how I feel now.
I think that U of M chose wisely in me. I contributed to the college community. I performed in a play on campus. I worked at the library for years, and I had instructors who I felt were friends and colleagues. The argument that students who are given points to improve their chances of being admitted to U of M are only set up for failure seems ridiculous. It certainly wasn't the case with me.
However, I also resent being a part of the University's multicultural cocktail. What was the goal of U of M in giving me extra points due not to what I did but who I was? Did they think admitting a few token poor people would enrich the learning environment of their regular students, or that, for four years, I would get to see how the other half lives? The implications of the assumptions that underlie U of M's point system can be offensive.
The Supreme Court ruled that race may be one of several factors for admission into a school but that a strict point system is not appropriate. Social class and hometown are never mentioned in most reports on the radio and television. The focus is on race and the sad legacy of white attitudes and behaviors towards people of other races—exactly what I thought it was when I read those letters in the college paper.
But the issue is broader than that. Questions of race can seem remote to people in small rural communities like the ones I've lived in. But social class and background affect us in northern Michigan—how others perceive us, our cultural knowledge, our ability to pay for college and our chances of getting in and fitting in. That's what U of M's admissions policy, the lawsuit and the Supreme Court's decision is about: us.
I see the Supreme Court's decision as a good thing for people like me. If U of M had been asked to desist from any diversity-based admissions policies, students from weaker schools and from families with fewer resources would stand a greater chance of being channeled to less-challenging universities.
For what it's worth, I don't think I would have been admitted if U of M did not have an admissions policy that paid attention to diversity.
And that would have made my high school counselor right. Kids from Mason County wouldn't go to U of M.