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Michigan Proposal 2 Battle Threatens Scholarships

Michigan Proposal 2 Battle Threatens Scholarships
Affirmative action ban collides with wishes of some scholarship donors.
By Natalie Y. Moore

Now that Michigan voters have axed affirmation action programs in public institutions, attention is beginning to shift toward a new higher education battleground — scholarships.

Under Proposal 2, which passed in November, scholarships that make distinctions based on race, gender, ethnicity or national origin are at risk. This includes privately created scholarships that are distributed by public colleges and universities. For the most part, higher education officials are taking a wait-and-see approach. But they are also thinking of other ways to reward students financially and hoping that contributors don’t write their checks elsewhere in the meantime.

“In Michigan, we don’t have a Northwestern, Duke or Stanford situation. We are, by and large, a public university state. We are very concerned that students will leave the state. Where will our best students of color go?” asks David Waymire, the former spokesman for One United Michigan, which opposed the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative.

Often, scholarships reflect the personality of the donor. A Jewish engineer or a Black female, for example, may want to bequeath a scholarship to other members of their communities. Under Proposal 2, such specific criteria are now illegal in Michigan if a public college or university is involved. Affirmative action proponents have argued that scholarships help diversify a student body and allow donors to give money with the expectation that certain goals will be met. School fund-raisers also worry that accepting gifts on conditions will turn off contributors.

Jim Drummond’s story helps illustrate the potential conflicts between would-be donors and the new law. A drunk driver killed his wife in 1991. Kathleen Drummond, a mother of five, had gone back to college in her 30s and graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint with a 3.9 GPA.
Jim Drummond thought the best way to honor his wife’s memory was to create a scholarship for mothers over 30 going to college. So far, between 15 and 20 scholarships, ranging from $1,000-$1,500, have been granted to academically successful mothers at Mott Community College in Flint.

“I feel violated,” Drummond says of having to alter his scholarship to gender neutral terms because of the ban. “I voted ‘no’ against that stupid proposal. The concept was not to be prohibitive of anyone else; it was created in a mother’s memory.”

Drummond, a retired Mott professor of English, says he won’t pull his money from the school even though the scholarship has been flagged as being gender discriminative. He established the criteria but is not involved in selecting the scholarship recipients. And that’s the way most donors prefer.

“This is one more step in stripping individuality and personality out of our society,” says Mott spokesman Michael Kelly. “The individual can hand over the money, but most of the time they don’t know these people. The school puts students and donors together. The colleges are set up to do that; we’re the connecting process.” Donors who make scholarship contributions through the school are also eligible for tax benefits, Kelly adds. It is more cumbersome for donors to administer scholarships independent of schools, but they could skip having a public college as the intermediary and be completely private.

Proposal 2, dubbed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, amends the state constitution to make it illegal for the state and its universities to discriminate against or give preferential treatment to people based on gender, race or ethnicity. The ban passed with 58 percent of the vote.

Mott officials say they will follow the law and make sure scholarships are open to all. University of Michigan officials are in the process of reaching out to donors to explain the necessary changes. UM officials wouldn’t say how many scholarships are affected.

Organizers who spearheaded the Proposal 2 campaign say it’s unfair for dollars given to a public institution to be bestowed based on race, gender or ethnicity.

“Plenty of organizations have scholarships given out on the basis of race and gender. But citizens of Michigan overwhelming said universities should not be a place for a basis of those things,” says Doug Tietz, the campaign’s former manager.

In Washington state, where voters banned affirmative action nearly a decade ago, school officials say scholarships have not been impacted. California also banned affirmative action, and the state’s guidelines don’t allow preferential scholarships.

A year ago, Wayne State University Law School Dean Frank Wu began working with the school’s admissions committee to analyze alternatives in case Proposal 2 passed. Wu is the law school’s first minority dean and the first Asian American law school dean in the country. He is also a vocal advocate of affirmative action, saying it has helped his career.

The law school has a dozen scholarships that donors have requested be race- or gender-specific, including scholarships for White ethnic groups. The school is considering ways to help students while complying with Proposal 2. For example, instead of awarding a scholarship to the top Black first-year student, the school could instead award it to the top student in a recognized student group, like the Black Law Students Association. All student groups, regardless of their name or mission, must be open to everyone.

“There is still a Black/White gap. It’s not imaginary, it’s real,” Wu says. He has created a new position, director of student services and educational outreach, to, among other duties, help administer scholarship programs in light of diversity constraints.

“I’m always hopeful. [We’ll] do everything to ensure access to higher education,” he says. “We’re a law school.

We have to follow the law. We know we’re being watched.”

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