On Michigan's Affirmative Action Ban

Updated: Thursday, May 1, 2014
On Michigan
KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - It's been nine days now since the Supreme Court upheld Michigan's right to ban affirmative action in admissions to our colleges and universities.

Tonight, in Tom's Corner, Tom Van Howe says when laws are made by referendum--by popular vote--things can, indeed, get messy.

But he'll take messes created by voters over those created by lawmakers any day.


It began with a petition. A right that is spelled out in the first amendment of our constitution. Not the second or the fifth. The first. Its right up there with freedom of speech and religion.

And in this case, a group of Michigan residents thought it was unfair for the University of Michigan to base admissions on affirmative action.

So they petitioned to have the matter placed on the ballot in the election of 2006. It was called Proposal 2.

Sometimes those kinds of off-year elections can wind up with important matters decided upon by only a small percentage of our electorate.

We know from experience that when the selection of a President is not a part of the whole, voters tend to stay home by the thousands. And it is clearly a discouraging trend.

But in 2006 we had a Governor’s race going on--Jennifer Granholm against Dick DeVos--and the turnout was pretty big: 58 percent.

And a majority of  them not only returned Granholm to Lansing, but said they also wanted a say in how our state’s flagship university chose which students to attend and why.

The measure passed, and amended our state constitution to prohibit discrimination or preferential treatment in public education.

This time the offended party was white.

In a nutshell, no longer could U-of-M or Michigan State or any other state school use the color of one's skin or ethnicity to move a particular student ahead of a more qualified white student.

White students who'd challenged the admissions process said they were being discriminated against in the name of racial diversity. No longer.

Law by referendum. Is it a good idea?

There is little question our elite campuses will not be as diverse. Already there are fewer minority students on campus.

There is little question some minority students who don't come from certain homes and school systems and economic backgrounds will be denied opportunities to redress perceived racial disparities of the past.

If all laws were passed by philosophical deep thinkers, there might have been a way to save the best parts of both arguments. But that is not the case.

Of course there’s the point of view that all petitions are financed anyway by someone with deep pockets who can--with the sheer force of an economic hurricane--convince voters to do just about anything.

I don't know if that assessment is true, but it is certainly the prevailing popular view of our government.

Lobbyists are spending tons of money everyday in Washington and Lansing to press arguments for or against the issues of the day.

And it's no accident that Congress has an abysmal approval rating of between 8 and 14 percent, depending on which poll you choose.

In short, we don’t trust them. And we don’t really trust them to take on a matter so sensitive as affirmative action.

But the average voters is something else. However uninformed voters might sometimes seem to be, however emotional they can become, however selfish or magnanimous they might be, they usually do the right thing.

I feel a certain comfort when an important  matter lands in their hands.

But this ruling leaves our colleges and universities in a bind as we move forward. It's not going to be easy.

Affirmative action is now against the law. They’re going to have to call in armies of deep philosophical  thinkers to find ways to balance fair competition and merit with need.

Along the way, maybe one of them will also find a way to walk on water.

But the effort has to be made.

We’ve come too far in rectifying the steep disadvantages and imbalances created over hundreds of years to turn our backs on them now.

We are still all in this together.

We do need, in fact, each other.

In this corner...I'm Tom Van Howe.

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