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Remembering the Michigan Mandate

Remembering the Michigan Mandate

Nearly two decades after its creation by the University of Michigan, the Michigan Mandate remains as one of the most comprehensive diversity initiatives ever undertaken by a predominantly White research university. Launched in the 1980s by Dr. James J. Duderstadt, then university president, the effort saw the Ann Arbor campus more than double its minority student population and significantly increase its minority faculty by the late 1990s.

In addition to increasing the numbers of under-represented students and faculty, Duderstadt, now a Michigan faculty member himself, contends the effort succeeded in “changing our culture and character in important ways, and most importantly, making our institution better in every way that we could measure it.

“At Michigan, we remain absolutely convinced that there is a very strong linkage between academic excellence and campus diversity,”
he says.

Duderstadt vacated the Michigan presidency in 1996, a year before the school began its defense against two major affirmative action lawsuits. Diversity proponents lauded the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in one of the cases, Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed race to be used as a factor in college admissions. Across the nation, however, the pursuit of diversity has proceeded cautiously as universities and colleges have sought to minimize their risk from lawsuits by anti-affirmative action groups. Institutions have revamped race-specific outreach programs by making them race-neutral though still using them to achieve diversity in student, faculty and staff recruitment.

Duderstadt is widely hailed for setting the diversity precedent among predominantly White universities. Much of U.S. higher education has followed suit, listing diversity among their institutional goals.

“It was clearly monumental. The Michigan Mandate helped show that a diverse academic environment was linked to learning and excellence,” says Dr. Alma Clayton-Pedersen, vice president for education and institution renewal at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

During the 1980s, many minority students expressed dismay with their experiences at Michigan and called upon officials to make changes. The 1980s also saw serious racial incidents rock the campus. By the 1986-1987 academic year, Duderstadt, then the university provost, responded to the difficulties by bringing people together to develop the Michigan Mandate. After becoming president in 1988, he implemented the mandate and made significant investments to reach out to prospective students and to recruit minority faculty.

“[Duderstadt] committed to diversifying the faculty and the students, but more than that, he’d taken 1 percent off the top of the budget annually and put it in escrow and said it could only be used for [diversity] purposes,” recalls Dr. Earl Lewis, a former Michigan dean and now the provost at Emory University.

Since the 2003 decision, efforts by anti-affirmative action groups have obscured the idea that diversity and academic excellence are linked, thus leading institutions to focus more on potential lawsuits rather than on the benefits of diversity, according to Clayton-Pedersen. 

“The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the idea that diversity is essential to excellence. This understanding is often missing from the way institutions approach diversity,” she says.

— By Ronald Roach

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