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The effort of the University of Michigan in the 1980s to bring diverse racial and ethnic groups more fully into the life of the university provides an excellent example of the moral leadership that can be exerted by a university president. This process of institutional transformation was guided by a strategic plan known as the Michigan Mandate, which achieved very significant progress toward the objective of social diversity, leading eventually to a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court in 2003.


As with most of higher education, the history of diversity at Michigan is complex and often contradictory. There have been many times when the institution seemed to take a step forward, only to be followed by two steps backward. Michigan was one of the earliest universities to admit African-Americans and women in the late 19th century. It took pride in its large enrollments of international students at a time when the state itself was decidedly insular. Yet it faltered as minority enrollments languished and racial tensions flared in the 1960s and 1970s, only to be jolted occasionally into ineffective action by student activism–the Black Action Movement in the 1970s and the United Coalition Against Racism in the 1980s.   Nonetheless, access and equality have always been central goals of the institution. Michigan has consistently been at the forefront of the struggle for inclusiveness in higher education.

By the late 1980s, it had become apparent that the university had made inadequate progress in its goal to reflect the rich diversity of our nation and our world among its faculty, students and staff. In assessing this situation, it was concluded that although the University had approached the challenge of serving an increasingly diverse population with the best of intentions, it simply had not developed and executed a plan capable of achieving sustainable results. Achieving the University’s goals for a diverse campus would require a very major change in the institution itself.

It was the long-term strategic focus of our planning that proved to be critical, because universities do not change quickly and easily any more than do the societies of which they are a part. Michigan would have to leave behind many reactive and uncoordinated efforts that had characterized its past and move toward a more strategic approach designed to achieve long-term systemic change. Sacrifices would be necessary as traditional roles and privileges were challenged. In particular, we understood the limitations of focusing only on affirmative action; that is, on access, retention, and representation. The key, rather, would be to focus on the success of underrepresented minorities on our campus, as students, as faculty, and as leaders. We believed that without deeper, more fundamental institutional change these efforts by themselves would inevitably fail–as they had throughout the 1970s and 1980s. 


The challenge was to persuade the university community that there was a real stake for everyone in seizing the moment to chart a more diverse future. People needed to believe that the gains to be achieved through diversity would more than compensate for the necessary sacrifices. The first and most important step was to link diversity and excellence as the two most compelling goals before the institution, recognizing that these goals were not only complementary but would be tightly linked in the multicultural society characterizing our nation and the world in the future. As the University moved ahead, it began to refer to the plan as The Michigan Mandate: A Strategic Linking of Academic Excellence and Social Diversity.


The mission and goals of the Michigan Mandate were stated quite simply: 1) To recognize that diversity and excellence are complementary and compelling goals for the university and to make a firm commitment to their achievement. 2) To commit to the recruitment, support, and success of members of historically underrepresented groups among our students, faculty, staff, and leadership. 3) To build on our campus an environment that sought, nourished, and sustained diversity and pluralism and that valued and respected the dignity and worth of every individual.


A series of carefully focused strategic actions was developed to move the University toward these objectives. These actions were framed by the values and traditions of the University, an understanding of our unique culture characterized by a high degree of faculty and unit freedom and autonomy, and animated by a highly competitive and entrepreneurial spirit. The strategy was both complex and pervasive, involving not only a considerable commitment of resources (e.g., fully funding all financial aid for minority graduate students) but also some highly innovative programs such as our Target of Opportunity program for recruiting minority faculty.  It also was one of those efforts that required leadership on the front lines by the president, since only by demonstrating commitment from the top could comparable commitments throughout the institution be achieved


By the mid 1990s Michigan could point to significant progress in achieving diversity. The representation of underrepresented minority students, faculty, and staff more than doubled over the decade of the effort. But, perhaps even more significantly, the success of underrepresented minorities at the University improved even more remarkably, with graduation rates rising to the highest among public universities, promotion and tenure success of minority faculty members becoming comparable to their majority colleagues, and a growing number of appointments of minorities to leadership positions in the University. The campus climate not only became more accepting and supportive of diversity, but students and faculty began to come to Michigan because of its growing reputation for a diverse campus.


Perhaps most significantly, as the campus became more racially and ethnically diverse, the quality of the students, faculty, and academic programs of the University increased to their highest level in history. This latter fact reinforced the contention that the aspirations of diversity and excellence were not only compatible but, in fact, highly correlated. By every measure, the Michigan Mandate was a remarkable success, moving the University beyond our original goals of a more diverse campus.


But, of course, this story does not end with the successful achievements of the Michigan Mandate. Beginning first with litigation in Texas (the Hopwood decision) and then successful referendum efforts in California and Washington, conservative groups such as the Center for Individual Rights began to attack policies such as the use of race in college admissions. Perhaps because of Michigan’s success in the Michigan Mandate, the University soon became a target for those groups seeking to reverse affirmative action with two cases filed against the University in 1997, one challenging the admissions policies of undergraduates, and the second challenging those in our Law School.

At Michigan, it was important that the University carry the water for the rest of higher education to re-establish this important principle. Throughout its history, Michigan had been committed to extending more broadly educational opportunities to the working class, to women, to racial and ethnic minorities, and to students from every state and nation. It was natural for the University to lead yet another battle for equity and social justice.

Although the 2003 Supreme Court decisions were split, supporting the use of race in the admissions policies of our Law School and opposing the formula-based approach used for undergraduate admissions, the most important ruling in both cases stated, in the words of the court: “Student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admission. When race-based action is necessary to further a compelling governmental interest, such action does not violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection so long as the narrow-tailoring requirement is also satisfied.”i Hence, the Supreme Court decisions on the Michigan cases reaffirmed those policies and practices long used by those selective colleges and universities throughout the United States. But more significantly, it reaffirmed both the importance of diversity in higher education and established the principle that, appropriately designed, race could be used as a factor in programs aimed at achieving diverse campuses. Hence the battle was won, the principle was firmly established by the highest court of the land. We had won. Or so we thought…

While an important battle had been won with the Supreme Court ruling, we soon learned that the war for diversity in higher education was far from over. As university lawyers across the nation began to ponder over the court ruling, they persuaded their institutions to accept a very narrow interpretation of the Supreme Court decisions as the safest course. Actually, this pattern began to appear at the University of Michigan during the early stages of the litigation process. Even as the university launched the expensive legal battle to defend the use of race in college admissions following my presidency, it throttled back many of the effective policies and programs created by the Michigan Mandate, in part out of concern these might complicate the litigation battle. As a consequence, the enrollment of underrepresented minorities began almost immediately to drop at Michigan, eventually declining from 1996 to 2002 by almost 25% overall and by as much as 50% in some of our professional schools. Although there was an effort to rationalize this by suggesting that the publicity given the litigation over admissions policies was discouraging minority applicants, there is little doubt in my mind that it was the dismantling of the Michigan Mandate that really set us back.

Since the Supreme Court decision, many universities have begun to back away from programs aimed at recruitment, financial aid, and academic enrichment for minority undergraduate students, either eliminating entirely such programs or opening them up to non-minority students from low-income households. Threats of further litigation by conservative groups has intensified this retrenchment. As a consequence, the enrollments of under-represented minorities are dropping again in many universities across the nation (including Michigan). After the years of effort in building successful programs such as the Michigan Mandate and defending the importance of diversity in higher education all the way to the Supreme Court, it would be tragic indeed if the decisions in the Michigan case caused more harm than good by unleashing the lawyers on our campus to block successful efforts to broaden educational opportunity and advance the cause of social justice.  

Ironically, the uses of affirmative action (and programs that involved racial preference) actually were not high on the agenda of the Michigan Mandate. Rather our success involved commitment, engagement, and accountability for results. Yet there is ample evidence today from states such as California and Texas that a restriction to race-neutral policies will drastically limit the ability of elite programs and institutions to reflect diversity in any meaningful way. As former UC President Richard Atkinson noted in a recent address in Ann Arbor, “Proposition 209 asked the University of California to attract a student body that reflects the state’s diversity while ignoring two of the major constituents of this diversity–race and ethnicity. A decade later, the legacy of this contradictory mandate is clear. Despite enormous efforts, we have failed badly to achieve the goal of a student body that encompasses California’s diverse population. The evidence suggests that without attention to race and ethnicity this goal will ultimately recede into impossibility.”

Yet it is also the case that many today believe that despite the importance of diversity, racial preferences are contrary to American values of individual rights and the policy of color-blindness that animated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Atkinson suggests that we need a new strategy that recognizes the continuing corrosive force of racial inequality but does not stop there. We need a strategy grounded in the broad American tradition of opportunity because opportunity is a value that Americans understand and support. We need a strategy which makes it clear that our society has a stake in ensuring that every American has an opportunity to succeed–and that every American, in turn, has a stake in equality of opportunities and social justice in our nation.


Even while pursuing the racial diversity goals of the Michigan Mandate, we realized we could not ignore another glaring inequity in campus life. If we meant to embrace diversity in its full meaning, we had to attend to the long-standing concerns of women faculty, students, and staff. Here, once again, it took time–and considerable effort by many women colleagues to educate the administration to the point where it began to understand that the university simply had not succeeded in including and empowering women as full and equal partners in all aspects of its life and leadership.


In faculty hiring and retention, despite the increasing pools of women in many fields, the number of new hires of women had changed only slowly during the late twentieth century in most research universities. In some disciplines such as the physical sciences and engineering, the shortages were particularly acute. We continued to suffer from the "glass ceiling" phenomenon: that is, because of hidden prejudice women were unable to break through to the ranks of senior faculty and administrators, though no formal constraints prohibited their advancement. The proportion of women decreased steadily as one moved up the academic ladder. Additionally, there appeared to be an increasing tendency to hire women off the tenure track as postdoctoral scholars, lecturers, clinicians, or research scientists. The rigid division among various faculty appointments offered little or no opportunity for these women to move into tenured faculty positions.


Many of our concerns derived from the extreme concentration of women in positions of lower status and power—as students, lower-pay staff, and junior faculty. The most effective lever for change might well be a rapid increase in the number of women holding positions of high status, visibility, and power. This would not only change the balance of power in decision-making, but it would also change the perception of who and what matters in the university. Finally, we needed to bring university policies and practices into better alignment with the needs and concerns of women students in a number of areas including campus safety, student housing, student life, financial aid, and childcare.


To address these challenges, the university developed and executed a second strategic effort known as the Michigan Agenda for Women. While the actions proposed were intended to address the concerns of women students, faculty, and staff, many of them benefited men as well. In developing the Michigan Agenda, we knew that different strategies were necessary for different parts of the university. Academic units varied enormously in the degree to which women participated as faculty, staff, and students. What might work in one area could fail miserably in another. Some fields, such as the physical sciences, had few women represented among their students and faculty. For them, it was necessary to design and implement a strategy which spanned the entire pipeline, from K-12 outreach to undergraduate and graduate education, to faculty recruiting and development. For others such as the social sciences or law, there already was a strong pool of women students, and the challenge became one of attracting women from this pool into graduate and professional studies and eventually into academe. Still other units such as education and many departments in humanities and sciences had strong participation of women among students and junior faculty, but suffered from low participation in the senior ranks and in leadership roles.

Like the Michigan Mandate, the vision was again both simple yet compelling:  that by the year 2000 the university would become the leader among American universities in promoting and achieving the success of women as faculty, students, and staff. Rapidly there was again significant progress on many fronts for women students, faculty, and staff, including the appointment of a number of senior women faculty and administrators as deans and executive officers, improvement in campus safety, and improvement of family care policies and child care resources. In 1997 Michigan appointed its first woman provost, Nancy Cantor (now president at Syracuse University). Finally, in 2002, the University of Michigan named its first woman president, Mary Sue Coleman.


The university also took steps to eliminate those factors that prevented other groups from participating fully in its activities.  For example, we extended our anti-discrimination policies to encompass sexual orientation and extended staff benefits and housing opportunities to same-sex couples. This was a particularly controversial action because it was strongly opposed not only by the religious right but also by several of the university’s regents. Yet, this was also an issue of equity, deeply frustrating to many faculty, staff, and students, which required attention. Harold Shapiro had tried on several occasions to persuade the regents to extend its anti-discrimination policies to include the gay community, without success. Finally, with a supportive, albeit short-lived, Democratic majority among the regents, the University managed to put in the necessary policies. The anticipated negative reaction was rapid and angry–an attempt by the Legislature to deduct from our appropriation the estimated cost of the same-sex couple benefits (effectively blocked by our constitutional autonomy).


We were determined to defend this action, however, as part of a broader strategy. We had become convinced that the university had both a compelling interest in and responsibility to create a welcoming community, encouraging respect for diversity in all of the characteristics that can be used to describe humankind: age, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, political beliefs, economic background, geographical background.

(JJD: The View from the Helm)

The Michigan Mandate