Michigan’s affirmative action debate

‘A blueprint for fundamental change’

To settle the Black Action Movement strike in 1970, the University promised enough financial aid to raise Black enrollment to 10 percent. The aid promise was kept, but Black enrollment rose only by small increments through the 1980s. So, Black students and their supporters insisted that U-M do more.

In 1988, President James J. Duderstadt introduced the Michigan Mandate, “a blueprint for fundamental change in the ethnic composition of the university community.” Its thesis: Cultural diversity and a high-quality education were intimately linked.

His focus on diversity was partly a response to the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in a landmark affirmative-action case, University of California Regents v. Bakke. The Court struck down racial quotas in admissions. But Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion left an opening for affirmative action advocates — he said a university pursuing “student body diversity” could use race as one factor in admissions decisions.

Earlier advocates for affirmative action had aimed to compensate for past racism. Now, the central argument was that affirmative action helped white students as well as Black students.

By 1995, the enrollment of all students of color rose to 25.4 percent — 8.9 percent Black, 11.3 percent Asian, 4.5 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 0.7 percent Native American.

Carl Cohen’s challenge

Black and white image of professor pointing to chalk board.

Carl Cohen in the classroom. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Then, Carl Cohen, a popular philosophy professor and past chair of the faculty senate’s Advisory Committee on University Affairs, took aim at Michigan’s admissions procedures.

Cohen had chaired the state’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and was a strenuous advocate for civil rights for people of color. He believed that racial discrimination of any kind violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. “[O]ur constitution is and must be color-blind,” he wrote. “The principle that a person’s race or color is simply not relevant in the application of the laws ought never to be sacrificed . . . even for the sake of some needed and hoped-for benefits.”

“Wanting racial justice,” he would write later, “the advocates of preference to achieve [racial] balance end up producing racial injustice . . . For decades, we have struggled to reduce interracial tension and distrust; now we engender distrust and exacerbate tension with deliberate racial favoritism.”

Cohen obtained data showing the University’s thresholds for grades and scores on aptitude tests were lower for Black applicants than for whites. He found that unacceptable on constitutional grounds. If a university gave a preference to some students “simply by virtue of race,” he wrote, then “what is given to some by race must be taken from others by race.”

He shared his findings with state legislators. Some objected, and they invited white students rejected by U-M to file suit.

Lee Bollinger, former dean of Michigan Law, had succeeded Duderstadt as president in 1997. So the two plaintiffs who stepped forward — Jennifer Gratz, rejected for admission as an undergraduate, and Barbara Grutter, rejected by the Law School — named him the target of lawsuits.

The University’s defense

From Bollinger down, many at U-M mounted a vigorous defense.

Among them was Patricia Gurin, a psychology and women’s studies professor. With several colleagues, she conducted studies purporting to show the value of a diverse student body on the student population as a whole. They noted that 90 percent of white students and 50 percent of Black students entering U-M in the early 1990s had grown up in racially homogeneous neighborhoods and attended racially homogeneous high schools.

Among other findings, Gurin’s group showed that when students of any ethnicity went to college on an ethnically diverse campus, they became more active and engaged thinkers.

“By enriching the educational environment with diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences,” Gurin wrote, “we prepare students for active participation in a democratic society and a globalized world.”

Another key advocate was Jeffrey S. Lehman, dean of the Law School during the litigation. He came to invoke the word integration as a better ideal than diversity since “integration does a better job of capturing the special importance to our country of undoing the damaging legacy of laws and norms that artificially separated citizens from one another on the basis of race. The enduring scars left by that history pose the greatest challenge to our nation’s prosperity and, for many, to its democratic legitimacy.”

Lehman argued that affirmative action to promote diverse student bodies is justifiable chiefly because it makes for a healthier and more legitimate democracy. Lehman said he respected the color-blind ideal professed by Grutter, Gratz, and their supporters. But it must be balanced, he said, by the ideal of integration — of breaking down barriers between races. “If we foster integration today, we are more likely to reach a color-blind society in the future. But if we insist on rigid, unflinching color-blindness today, our society will become less integrated, not more.”

‘The real issue at hand’

Carl Cohen himself reported that a friend, Terrance Sandalow, former dean of the Law School, put the argument for integration in stark terms. Sandalow urged Cohen to visit Detroit’s criminal courts: “And now imagine, Carl, that all the judges are white, and all or most of the prosecuting attorneys are white, while the defendants, 95 percent of them, are Black. Do you think, Carl, that we can maintain a peaceful and harmonious society in the face of such gross racial imbalance?”

“The real issue at hand,” wrote Nicholas Lemann, who covered the Michigan debate for the New Yorker, “is also the most fundamental one: the way American higher education sees itself.”

Institutions like Michigan see their mission as “training students to go forth and improve the world,” Lemann said, so the campuses must be “centers of interracial understanding.” They had no obligation to set a “blind, objective standard for admission.”

On the other side were those who, like Gratz and Grutter, saw the universities as gatekeepers of professional advancement. They believed universities — especially public universities —must be strictly color-blind in issuing tickets to pass through that gate.

Split decision

Two caucasian women amid a crowd speak into a cluster of microphones.

Plaintiffs Barbara Grutter (left) and Jennifer Gratz in Washington, D.C. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

The Gratz and Grutter cases rose to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2003, the justices ruled against Michigan in Gratz v. Bollinger, saying the undergraduate admissions system, which awarded points to applicants of color, used race in a way that was unconstitutionally mechanistic. In Grutter v. Bollinger, they ruled in the Law School’s favor, saying it was constitutionally permissible to weigh an applicant’s race as one factor in a holistic assessment.

In its Grutter opinion, the Court recognized the force of Gurin’s and other studies showing that “such diversity [in a law school’s student body] promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession . . . The path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”

In the aftermath of the rulings, Michigan voters approved a 2006 ballot initiative to enforce race-neutral admissions at the state’s public universities.

After that, despite the University’s efforts to maintain a diverse student body, Black enrollment fell to roughly five percent.

Pursuing diversity within the law

In 2023, the Supreme Court further narrowed universities’ abilities to consider race in admissions, effectively overruling the Grutter decision.

President Santa J. Ono responded by reaffirming U-M’s commitment to pursuing diversity within the law. He said, in part: “We believe racial diversity benefits the exchange and development of ideas by increasing students’ variety of perspectives, promoting cross-racial understanding, and dispelling racial stereotypes. It helps prepare students to be leaders in a global marketplace and increasingly multicultural society.”

(Sources included Carl Cohen, A Conflict of Principles: The Battle Over Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (2014) and Patricia Gurin et al., Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (2004). The lead image shows supporters of affirmative action demonstrating on the Diag in 1998. Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)


  1. Mark Tanase - 1991

    “By 1995, the enrollment of all students of color rose to 25.4 percent — 8.9 percent Black, 11.3 percent Asian, 4.5 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 0.7 percent Native American…

    Cohen obtained data showing the University’s thresholds for grades and scores on aptitude tests were lower for Black applicants than for whites…

    Michigan voters approved a 2006 ballot initiative to enforce race-neutral admissions at the state’s public universities.”

    I would be curious to know the grade and aptitude test scores and racial backgrounds for admitted undergraduates for various time periods (say from 1990 to 1995, the years just prior to and then just after 2006 and again for the years just prior to 2023 and now). Presumably, as Michigan is legally required to have a race-neutral admissions policy (since 2006 as per the article), the 2023 SCOTUS decision should be irrelevant for UM. Is this correct?


  2. Cheryl Stevenson - 1992, 1996

    I believe we do a great disservice to people when we try to convince ourselves that we don’t “see color.” Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the first descriptors we use to identify someone is skin color. The same is true when it comes to college admission. We must admit to ourselves that color plays a role. In 1990, I became the first Black doctoral student in UM’s College of Pharmacy, earning MS and PhDs in Pharmaceutics. I was amazed that the university had never had a Black student in the program and there was only one other in the 6 years I was there. More changes need to be made and the university has to do it because the Supreme Court has done just the opposite.


  3. Randal Y - 1982

    This is a fine run down of aspects of this history! Of course, the discourse was national one as the author rightly points out regarding the Bakke Decision. It should be added that a longer conflicting history stemming from the United States as a slaveholding society should be named in this article. Added to the racisms embedded historically at UMICH was elitism. Being part of the elite establishment drove Michigan as an institution. For Michigan and other institutions of its ilk there was no desirous advantage of training working class students, which Black students were overwhelmingly. Being an elite means to measure oneself by the dictates of the upper middle class/societal tastemakers. Those tastemakers in fact made life more difficult for the Black working class students and laborers judging from many policy makers who graduated from the school. Though, l love the institution, the faux liberalism was never going to tackle the questions that deeply affected most Black students in Detroit, Flint or Grand Rapids. No President of Michigan including Fleming, Shapiro, Duderstadt ….addressed crisis of public education in the wake Brown v. Board. Lastly, any article on this subject might wish include the voices who put their bodies and minds on the line attempting to make UMich more inclusive besides football and basketball teams. What were Black students experiences in the classroom, in seminars etc?How did intellectual racism happen inside the walls of the institution that made many students unwelcome.


  4. Tom Tepas - 1968, 1970

    For those interested in additional history at U of M on this issue, I’d refer all to the Alumni Magazine in early (March?) 2024 that graphs minority enrollment over the past 25 years. Regardless of your views on the judicial rulings, it paints a dismal failure at U of M to attract black students-enrollment is 1/2 of what it was 25 years ago, a decline from 8% to 4% of total enrollment. As a (retired) businessman, I’d question the performance against goals and objectives of the Office of Diversity


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