Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Diversity Mandate

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Diversity Mandate

Article excerpt

Emory University Provost Earl Lewis offers insight on the national climate for campus diversity.

Before becoming the first African-American provost at Emory University, Dr. Earl Lewis had been on the front lines of the University of Michigan's defense of affirmative action in higher education. At the time of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 decision upholding the use of race in academic admissions, Lewis was serving as dean of Michigan's Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and was vice provost for academic affairs.

Lewis, who went to UM in 1989 as an associate professor of history, arrived on the campus two years after then-president Dr. James J. Duderstadt led the development of the Michigan Mandate, reportedly the most ambitious diversity initiative undertaken by a predominantly White research university. By the time Duderstadt stepped down as president in 1996, minority enrollment at UM had increased from 11 percent in 1986 to 25.4 percent.

By 1997, Lewis had ascended to the dean's office, where he played a lead role in the affirmative action cases. He would remain in the dean's office until moving on to Emory in 2004.

In early August, Lewis spoke to Diverse and shared his insights on the national climate for campus diversity.

DI: With the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions on affirmative action in higher education in 2003 marking a new era for diversity, do you believe American colleges and universities have committed themselves to diversity as strongly as they did prior to the decisions?

EL: It's clear to me that in the days and weeks after the Supreme Court decision, universities heralded it as a positive step. However, after the decision, university attorneys, under pressure from external sources, began to try and figure out how to comply without creating more risk exposure for their institutions.

So, my sense of this is multi-fold. One, I think higher education and many institutions hailed the fact that the University of Michigan fought for the decision and that the Supreme Court said that one could still take race into consideration. At the same time, while they were hailing the Supreme Court decision, they were also responding to the threats of legal challenge. And it was clear that making programs inclusive became the way out. So the great balancing act is how do you achieve diversity with those groups that have historically been discriminated against.

There's still a palpable political pressure to change the way in which we deal with access to higher education in the United States. There's no university president who can ignore this.

DI: The Michigan Mandate might be considered a high mark for higher education's commitment to diversity. Is there any institution that can be said to be currently pursuing a diversity push as aggressively as the University of Michigan did in the 1990s?

EL: I think, in all honesty, no one is crafting it in the way that the University of Michigan did in the 1990s. It was a different legal landscape, so in the 1990s you could sponsor certain programs, you could take money off the top of your budget and you could designate special recruitment efforts. That's not to say that people still aren't doing that, but they haven't come up with new practices to aggressively recruit students of color, particularly African-American and Latino students.

What Jim Duderstadt did when he was president of Michigan and when he created the Michigan Mandate was to say, Tm going to take a certain amount from my budget and basically do two things - increase the number of students of color at this institution and increase the number of faculty of color.'

With regard to faculty, Michigan was more successful than most places I knew. There were as many Black faculty at Michigan as there were in the University of California system when I left in 1989. So you had nine campuses compared to one campus. What Michigan discovered in the late 1980s through the 1990s was that you are most successful when you hire in clusters. …

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