Voters will decide if proposal passes in November

State voters will decide the fate of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative in November. The proposal would amend the state constitution by adding an article that would ban public institutions from using affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes.

If passed, the proposal would apply to state government, local governments, public colleges and universities, community colleges and school districts.

Several presentations on affirmative action have been held on campus, including a February debate that drew more than 200 students, faculty and staff.

William B. Allen, professor of political science at Michigan State University, argued in support of the proposal, while Lisa D. Cook, assistant professor of economics at Michigan State's James Madison College, argued against it.

Allen contends affirmative action is damaging to the soul and divisive in the community. "Affirmative Action is the 'but for' proposition when you say to someone, "'But for your race you wouldn't be here, but for your race you couldn't be considered, but for your gender you don't have an opportunity,'" he said.

Allen said the representation theory is often brought up during conversations about affirmative action that suggests participation in a global environment can't take place unless all of the different groups in American society are represented.

"It's not possible for us to represent groups in that way," he said. "What we represent is our own character ... our own best effort ... our own contribution to the world. And, we want the world to receive that contribution knowing that we did it - not a faceless race, not an indeterminate gender - we individuals did it."

In her opening remarks, Cook said she supports a color-blind society but that American society has fallen far short of that ideal. "A variety of forms of negative discrimination, and worse, have in various ways limited the opportunities available to members of particular identity groups, such as African Americans, female Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans," she said.

Cook argued that affirmative action can help reduce current inequalities of opportunity for disadvantaged identity groups such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans. She said affirmative action is also helpful in integrating elite positions in society, in spreading access to social capital and in achieving a free and just society.

Citing government statistics, Cook said almost 100,000 complaints of employment discrimination are received every year, almost all from people of color. She said housing studies show African Americans and Hispanic Americans receive less favorable access than Whites, job studies show Whites get a much better hiring response than African Americans, and applicants with White-sounding names win interviews more often than those with Black-sounding names.

"Passing the MCRI would send the message that the majority of Michigan voters don't think these inequalities really matter," she said.

Grand Valley President Mark A. Murray said it is ironic the proposal is coming so soon after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in recent University of Michigan cases.

"The court looked at both the law and the facts and found that it is still appropriate that race be one of the factors considered to make sure college campuses bear a close resemblance to the communities where graduates will serve and lead," Murray said. "I believe we would be better off having time to implement this most recent direction from the U.S. Supreme Court. We need to make sure the doors are open for those who have not had the same opportunities and successes in various professional fields, whether it be women in engineering or Latinos and African Americans in business."

In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of universities to consider race in admissions procedures in order to achieve a diverse student body. In two lawsuits challenging University of Michigan admissions policies, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of the Law School's policy and, by a vote of 6-3, reversed, in part, the university's undergraduate admissions policy, while still allowing for the consideration of race in admissions.

Grand Valley has a comprehensive program to recruit qualified minority applicants. Oliver Wilson, dean of Multicultural Affairs, spent 13 years in university admissions and recruiting. "We do not use a point system here," he said. "We look at cognitive variables like grade point averages and standardized test scores, but we take a holistic approach. We look at leadership skills, activities and volunteer work in the community."

Wilson said if the initiative passes, Grand Valley could lose important recruiting tools that help make the university a rich and diverse learning environment. "We could lose scholarships that are specifically designed to attract a diverse student body, and this could significantly impact the recruitment of faculty of color," he said.

Wilson said affirmative action carries with it a myth that unqualified students are recruited. "That's simply not true," he said. "Each student at Grand Valley has earned his or her way here. I am against quotas because they limit opportunities. That creates a revolving door and sets students up for failure."

Proponents of the initiative say passage would not mean an end to affirmative action, but that such steps would be permitted for certain classifications such as "inner-city schools" or "rural schools" or other measures of socio-economic disadvantage.

The MCRI ballot language is nearly identical to California Proposition 209, which was approved by California voters in November 1996. The Michigan proposal is slightly different in that it expressly includes any public college, university or community college. Ward Connerly, a former University of California Regent who spearheaded the campaign to pass Proposition 209, brought the initiative campaign to Michigan.

Proponents and opponents of Proposition 209 disagree on the effects of the proposal, but Tom Butcher, university legal counsel at Grand Valley, said some universities in California have seen dramatic changes in demographics of the student and faculty population.

Butcher also said it's hard to predict all of the ramifications if the proposal passes in Michigan. "The courts in California have interpreted Proposition 209 very broadly in its scope. So, despite the fact that federal law permits taking race and gender into account, Michigan law, if the ballot proposal goes through, would outlaw this," he said.

Some surveys suggest the proposal may be a close vote in Michigan. A telephone survey conducted in March by Lansing-based EPIC/MRA showed 47 percent of 600 likely voters opposed the initiative, 44 percent favored it, and 9 percent were undecided.

In order to be eligible to vote in the statewide election on November 7, residents must be registered to vote by October 7. 

More information about the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative can be found at the following Web sites:www.michigancivilrights.org | www.oneunitedmichigan.org

Page last modified March 17, 2014