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Corporations Lend Support to U-Michigan’s Diversity Efforts

Corporations Lend Support to U-Michigan’s Diversity Efforts
By Hilary Hurd

Twenty of America’s largest and best-known corporations filed a legal brief here last month strongly supporting the University of Michigan in the lawsuit challenging its admissions policies. The brief argues that diversity in higher education plays a critical role in preparing students to be leaders in business and other pursuits that affect the public interest.
The lawsuits, filed in 1997 on behalf of three White applicants, claim the university unconstitutionally uses race as a factor in admissions to the university’s undergraduate colleges of literature, science and the arts, as well as to the university’s law school. The law school case is scheduled to go on trial in January. No trial date has been set for the undergraduate case, but a hearing on critical motions will be held later this month.
Many legal experts say it is unprecedented for this many companies to support a civil case of this type.
“This is really powerful evidence that corporations really feel that this is also a business issue, a competitive issue,” Dr. Bernie Milano, president of the KPMG Foundation, told Black Issues. “From a corporation’s standpoint, we need to have the talents and perspectives of everyone. If universities are precluded from delivering to corporations a diverse pool of candidates, we can’t be globally competitive, as we otherwise would be.”
According to the Oct. 16 brief, the corporations’ interest in the case is substantial. All of the companies recruit at the University of Michigan or similar leading institutions of higher education, and all have a business presence and strong connection to customers in Michigan. Filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the brief states that racial and ethnic diversity in institutions of higher education is vital to the corporations’ efforts to hire and maintain an effective work force.
Steelcase Inc., a global furniture manufacturing company based in Grand Rapids, Mich., took the lead in the filing the brief. Its CEO, James Hackett, an alumnus of the University of Michigan, was influential in gaining the support of other CEOs.
“[Diversity] does not just benefit minorities, but any individual who is exposed to people of different ethnicities and cultures,” says Heidi Hennick, a spokeswoman for Steelcase. “Our CEO feels very strongly about diversity being the key underpinning to our company’s success.”
Participants in the legal brief report that managers and employees who graduated from institutions with diverse student bodies are better prepared to understand, learn from and collaborate with others from a variety of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds; demonstrate creative problem solving by integrating differing perspectives; exhibit the skills required for good teamwork; and demonstrate more responsiveness to the needs of all types of consumers.
“I’m gratified by the overwhelming support shown by the multinational corporations that have filed an amicus brief in defense of the university’s admissions policies. The brief…is further evidence that American businesses view our ability to maintain racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses as essential to their economic competitiveness,” says Dr. Lee C. Bollinger, the university’s president. “I believe this broad-based show of support by mainstream corporate America is a confirmation of how effective our admissions policies have been in producing graduates prepared to be leaders in the business community and elsewhere.”
In addition to Steelcase, the other corporations that filed include: 3M, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn; Abbot Laboratories of Abbott Park, Ill; Bank One, Chicago; E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Co., Wilmington, Del.; Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich.; Eastman Kodak Co., Rochester, N.Y.; Eli Lilly; Indianapolis; General Mills, Minneapolis, Minn.; Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif.; Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J.; Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, Mich.; KPMG International, New York; Lucent Technologies, Murray Hill, N.J.; Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.; PPG Industries Inc., Pittsburgh, Penn; Proctor and Gamble, Cincinnati, Ohio; Sara Lee Corp., Chicago; Texaco, White Plains, NY; and TRW, Inc., located in Cleveland, Ohio.
Last month, the university hosted a rally that was attended by approximately 300 university students, faculty, administrators,
community members and corporate representatives. High school students from Detroit were bused in as well.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson made a guest appearance, encouraging students to vote in the upcoming presidential election, saying there are only three important issues in the upcoming election — “The Supreme Court, the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court.”
 But Jackson did not neglect the issue at hand. “It’s about patterns of exclusions based upon gender, race, sexual orientation or physical disability, which makes affirmative action a majority, not a minority issue,” Jackson said. 

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