February 20, 2014 at 5:39 pm

U-M must work harder to boost student diversity, its president says

In the wake of a Michigan law that does not allow universities to consider race in admissions, the University of Michigan has to work harder to increase diversity on campus, President Mary Sue Coleman said Thursday.

“That we have not been able to make more progress with underrepresented minority enrollment, along with the challenging climate and inclusion issues our community is experiencing, deeply troubles me,” Coleman told the Board of Regents during its regular meeting. “We have to redouble our efforts toward a more diverse campus. We haven’t realized our collective aspirations. There is so much work to be done, and we know that.”

Coleman’s comments came weeks after the university’s Black Student Union delivered a letter in January expressing concerns about the dwindling number of students of color on campus, along with a list of demands. In the audience at Thursday’s meeting were nearly a dozen African-American students dressed in black, their mouths taped shut with duct tape that said “Go Blue.”

Later, during the public comment section of the meeting, dozens of students stood with signs that read “Defend Affirmative Action and Fight For Equality.” A few spoke.

“The truth is on this campus, it is not diverse ... it is not inclusive,” said LeRoy Lewis, a national organizer with By Any Means Necessary.

Black students make up less than 5 percent of the student body at U-M. Students say university officials promised the Black Action Movement 40 years ago that African-Americans would make up 10 percent of U-M’s enrollment.

During Thursday’s meeting, the Board of Regents approved creating an associate vice president’s position to focus on enrollment management.

University officials have had constructive conversations with students about their concerns, Coleman said earlier in the meeting.

“We hear loud and clear that students of color feel isolated and marginalized, and that our frequently declared ‘commitment to diversity’ is perceived as disingenuous,” she said. “Students here and elsewhere are raising real — and painful — concerns about campus climate and the diminishing number of students of color in classrooms. We see the struggles many colleges are facing now, but here at Michigan we have unique challenges that have affected us these past few years.”

Coleman was referring to Michigan’s 2006 voter-approved law, known as Proposal 2, that bans affirmative action in university admissions. A legal challenge to the ban is being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, with a verdict expected before July.

Knowing that diversity is an essential value at U-M, and that alumni consider it one of the greatest assets, Coleman said U-M is trying to find ways to increase minority enrollment and make the campus more inclusive.

Progress has been made in some areas, such as continuing to increase the number of faculty members of color over the past decade and closing the graduation gap between undergraduate majority and minority students.

Also, Coleman said, U-M consistently ranks among the “top 10” in awards of Ph.D. degrees to minority students, including third in the number of doctorates awarded to African-Americans this past year.

Additional work is on the horizon as U-M restores the Trotter Multicultural Center and expands outreach efforts to lower-income and first-generation students.

“We have work to do, all of us, together,” Coleman said. “We need to recognize the societal factors that affect our public institution; we need to work within the law and with respect to a wide variety of opinion and belief. But Michigan has long been a place where these hard conversations have led to new ideas and new energy.”

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