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Keynote Address at
"U-M Admissions Lawsuits: An Update"

Dr. Mary Sue Coleman
President of the University of Michigan
September 18, 2002

Thank you for joining us for this important update on the two admissions lawsuits that the University of Michigan is now defending.

From the moment I arrived on campus this summer, I've been responding to the same kinds of questions that I'm sure you must have on your minds today. At campus meetings, media interviews, alumni gatherings, and community events, people have been asking: What is the status of Michigan's cases? What is happening around the country? What will happen next? So I am pleased this afternoon to join in presenting an overview of where we stand — as campus leaders and legal experts bring everyone up to date with the most current information available.

One advantage to being a newcomer is that I can tell you, at first hand, that the whole country has a stake in our cases. As you know, university presidents across the country look to the University of Michigan as a model of what a great public university can be. At Iowa, whenever I talked about how we might foster an intense, demanding environment for study and research, I pointed to the University of Michigan — where a deep, unwavering commitment to diversity goes hand in hand with a deep, unwavering commitment to excellence. And now I am proud to be leading a university that all of higher education is watching — as we defend actions that have contributed to our success.

We know that the kind of educational environment we enjoy here does not "just happen." It is carefully cultivated. It develops, in part, from well-considered admissions practices, designed to foster an atmosphere in which, for students and teachers alike, old habits of thought are challenged, and new questions continually come at us from left field, forcing us to re-examine what we thought we knew well — and sometimes even the foundations of our disciplines.

More than fifty years of changes in higher education have taught us that the more diverse an academic community becomes — through every form of "diversity" you can name — the more vigorous its debates and discussions. Our parents' generation learned this from the GI Bill in the 1940s and '50s, when thousands of young men became the first in their families to go to college, and a fresh breeze blew through our campuses. My own generation witnessed a similar transformation in the 1960s, when thousands of African Americans and other minorities gained new opportunities, and brought with them new questions, new concerns, new energies — closely followed by the women's movement and its wave of new opportunities, new aspirations, and new challenges.

I remember vividly what a difference all this made at the University of North Carolina, where I had been a graduate student in the 1960s. When I entered graduate school, there were perhaps 60 African Americans enrolled, out of a student body of 12,000, and at most two or three African Americans on the entire faculty. There were virtually no women faculty members and none at all in the sciences, the area in which I was studying.

But when I returned to U.N.C. as an administrator in 1990, I found a different — and a far better — institution. The enrollment had doubled, attracting better qualified students, at least ten percent of whom were African Americans, from a much wider geographical area. The faculty had become more varied and more distinguished, offering a broader curriculum, and venturing into new areas of research. The university had become much stronger academically, not in spite of its increased diversity, but because of it.

As Justice Powell recognized a generation ago in the 1978 Bakke case, a diverse student body offers compelling educational benefits to all students. Justice Powell quoted William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, who emphasized how much is learned through informal "interactions among students of both sexes; of different races, religions, and backgrounds; who come from cities and rural areas; from various states and countries; who have a wide variety of interests, talents, and perspectives; and who are able, directly or indirectly, …to stimulate one another to reexamine even their most deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world." Bowen, echoing one of Princeton's graduates, pointed out that "People do not learn very much when they are surrounded only by the likes of themselves."

Recognizing the educational benefits of diversity does not mean that we equate a person's race with a particular point of view. It reflects the fact that race still matters in American society, as it influences our perceptions about the world and the people around us. To understand the impact on perception, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction among students. It is the most powerful educational tool we know to break down stereotypes and overcome assumptions. It helps students see commonalities across racial lines and acknowledge differences within racial groups. No book or lecture, no computer simulation or exercise, could convey the message as eloquently. The experience of studying in a diverse community prepares students — all students — to participate in an increasingly diverse democracy and to compete in a global economy. And that is really why the Sixth Circuit in the Law School case — and the district court in the undergraduate case — have reaffirmed that the University's admissions policies are constitutional and fair.

Now, through rigorous, multidisciplinary social science research, investigators at the University of Michigan have demonstrated with empirical evidence what we as educators have long understood to be true: a diverse learning environment is a better learning environment for every student. In this month's Harvard Education Review, Professors Patricia Gurin, Eric Dey, Sylvia Hurtado and Gerald Gurin have published a compilation of their seminal research findings that link diversity with positive student educational outcomes. In addition, researchers at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA and the University of Maryland among others have studied and reported on some of these positive outcomes including richer classroom environments, improved critical thinking abilities, higher self-confidence, and improved interpersonal and leadership skills.

I know some skeptics argue that, even though diversity might make a difference in the study of certain subjects like sociology or law, it has no bearing on the sciences, where we work in sterile labs, following a pure, objective, dispassionate process, to arrive at a truth beyond question. On the contrary, diversity makes a huge difference in science. Having spent more than half of my professional life in biochemistry, working on cancer research, I can tell you that science is not value-free. A richly diverse scientific community affects both how we teach science and how we do science. It affects science policy, determining who does what science with what resources. That research, in turn, affects science curricula, shaping what is taught and how it is taught.

Just think of what a difference diversity has made in our understanding of disease. For years the National Institutes of Health ignored women in clinical trials of new drugs and in large population studies of heart disease and cancer. Only as the scientific leadership ranks included more women did we turn our attention to some of the serious health problems facing women, including heart disease and breast cancer. Only as the scientific leadership became more racially and ethnically diverse did we study differences in hypertension, diabetes, or cancer survival rates across a diverse population.

There are serious tensions in science research today, areas where diverse groups of scientists, social scientists and ethicists will be especially important. On which diseases will we focus our attention? For what health conditions will pharmaceutical companies target drug development? What are the biological and societal causes behind — and the consequences of — health disparities in different populations? Those questions are even more compelling as we learn from the sequencing of the human genome that our genetic code is 99.9 percent the same for all of humankind. A more diverse pool of researchers will help us better understand the full array of health issues and questions facing us, and will ensure greater fairness and equity in public policy decisions and research funding.

As scientific discovery accelerates at lightning speed, we know we are on the threshold of advances beyond the imagination of previous generations…but although we might be capable, does it mean we should be willing? In curricula here at the University of Michigan and in universities across the country, students are considering the ethical and societal implications of science — for example, in our new undergraduate life sciences curriculum and in the lectures and workshops sponsored by the Life Sciences Values and Society Program. Many of the most important scientific questions of our lifetime involve deep cultural, racial, gender, and ethnic considerations; and, in great measure the richer the diversity of those considering the issues, the greater our ultimate understanding will be.

I am proud to add my voice to all those who recognize the importance of diversity on campus and in our classrooms, here at the University of Michigan and around the country. I am proud of Michigan's leadership in developing admissions policies that are fair, legal, and inclusive, helping to ensure that all Michigan students will have the benefit of a rich educational experience, and be better prepared to answer their generation's most challenging questions.

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