In 2006, 58 percent of Michigan voters approved an amendment that establishes equal treatment in college admissions. That amendment is now being challenged in court, and therefore on Tuesday, I will go before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the Michigan Constitution.
Specifically, our constitution states that public colleges and universities “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” In plain English, it is the expression by citizens of Michigan that it is fundamentally wrong to treat people differently on the basis of race or the color of their skin.
The legal challenge to this amendment, known as Schuette v. BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), revolves around three key points:
• It does not violate equal protection to require equal treatment. The Michigan Constitution embodies the fundamental premise of what America is all about: equal treatment under the law.
• Treating people differently based on the color of their skin is wrong, period. As Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said, “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
• Diversity is achievable in higher education without race and sex preferences. The state of Michigan wants to encourage minority students to attend college. Indeed, our state needs more college graduates of all types — men, women, minorities, rural residents — to recharge our economic engine and create more jobs and paychecks. But this can’t be achieved “by any means necessary”; it has to be accomplished by constitutional means.
I am an optimist. I think this case will not only engage the nation in a conversation about race, but will also challenge public colleges and universities to find new ways to widen the pipeline to higher education and encourage experiments in how to broaden the range of students who are recruited.
Other states, including Texas and California, have adopted race-neutral programs that have increased racial diversity at their universities while at the same time improving minority success in college.
Going forward, Michigan universities would be free to consider any number of race-neutral admissions policies to increase diversity on campus, including socioeconomic status, the quality of a student’s school system and whether the student overcame great personal obstacles to achieve success.
NCAA institutions have no trouble recruiting minority youths to participate in football and basketball programs. We need to see the same level of dedication to recruiting minorities when it comes to academic success. Colleges and universities must recruit academic brilliance with the same passion and commitment as their current recruitment for athletic brilliance.
Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that admissions processes that discriminate based on race (as the universities’ policies do) are presumptively unconstitutional, but are barely acceptable only if they are very narrowly tailored.
That the Supreme Court has said some limited discrimination in the form of racial preference is permissible doesn’t make that discrimination mandatory. As a result, the people of Michigan were well within their rights to say that we want to stop discriminating based on race.
Moreover, this legal challenge against Michigan’s constitution misses the point. The problem that needs to be solved is this: too many minority students are trapped in failing public schools. The system is failing them. Graduation rates are far too low; illiteracy far too high. This is where drastic change and reform are needed.
The only thing Article 1, Section 26 of the Michigan Constitution discriminates against is discrimination. Entrance to our great colleges and universities should never be denied to a student because of his or her race or sex.
Bill Schuette is the attorney general of Michigan.