Posted on October 5, 2004

Policies Leave Room For Stereotypes

Michael Kan, Michigan Daily (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Oct. 4

It can be a look, an expression or their entire attitude, but nonetheless LSA freshman Bradley Johnson says he gets the impression from some of his classmates that they think he lacks the credentials to be at the University.

“It’s not anything that you can really explain, but it is something that I tend to notice — this aloofness that they might have in their demeanor,” he said. “There’s even a bit of arrogance toward me.”

But to Johnson, the reason for this uneasiness is not that he lacks the qualifications, but rather the fact that he is black, making him a target of a stereotype that labels some minority college students as unworthy to attend the University.

The stereotype may be exacerbated by the fact that many high-school seniors say race-conscious policies affect the way nonminorities perceive minorities, according to a study conducted by the National Research Center for College and University Admissions

Ironically, the underpinnings of the stereotyping Johnson faces appear to result from the University’s race-conscious admissions, the very policies that were meant in part to curb such preconceptions.

Since implementing its race-conscious admission policies, the University has been leading the charge to promote diversity in the country’s education system and affording educational opportunities to disadvantaged minority groups.

Yet for students like Johnson, the admissions policies have had an unspoken side effect — causing some nonminority students to believe minorities are getting a free pass into one of the nation’s top universities, regardless of their qualification.

Specifically it’s the term, “affirmative action” which leads to the stereotype says Michael Fleischer, spokesman for the research center that did the study.

“This view of minorities unable to perform well at affirmative action universities is because a lot of (non-minority) students don’t understand it and have misconceptions about the term.” Fleischer said.

In a recent study conducted by the research center, 78 percent of high school seniors nationwide said using race, ethnicity and religious background as admissions factors affects the way nonminority students feel about their minority classmates. The study also found 82 percent of students opposed race-conscious admissions, in spite of the 70 percent that also said attending a University with a diverse campus was important to them.

Fleischer said the study did not directly quantify the pervasiveness of the stereotype, but he added that researchers found many students basing their responses on misconceptions of race-conscious admissions.

“Many students surveyed had that stereotype in mind, and now when they see minorities, they might think, ‘Did they take spots away from people who deserved to get in? Did they meet the same criteria as I did to get accepted?’ “

At the same time, Fleischer said researchers noted that many of the students surveyed believe that race-conscious admissions are merely a quota system, whereas schools like the University only consider race as one of the many admission factors in a subjective process.

“Obviously, colleges aren’t doing a good job of communicating how they are creating a diverse student body,” he added.

LSA freshman Lindsay Richardson said she sees the same sentiment in friends from her hometown and students at the University.

Richardson said that she thinks others students “get the impression that (minorities) had an easier time, and they didn’t have to work as hard.”

“I think it builds up a lot of stereotypes,” she added.

Other students say the stereotype does in fact reflect that many unqualified minority students are unjustly taking the spots of more-qualified nonminority students. Engineering freshman Stacey Young said she thought that the academic performance of her minority classmates has not been on par with many of the other students.

But the notion that all colleges should judge students solely on test scores and GPA is not the goal of many universities, said John Matlock, director of the University’s Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives.

“You can have all 4.0 students, but that doesn’t mean you have an environment that people can learn about different perspectives,” Matlock said. “I don’t think schools are looking for clones of a ‘model’ student.”

Instead, Matlock said the priority of University’s admission process is creating a diverse educational environment by incorporating students of all races, ethnicities, religion and economic status into the student body.

As for whether the race-conscious policies admit underqualified minorities, Matlock said all students accepted to the University are qualified students. But he added the issue deals more with the subjectivity of the term “qualified.”

“If you look at the new admissions (of the University), it gets down to how you define merit. Grades, tests scores are important, but they are not the only way to judge merit,” he said.

While the thought of the University’s race-conscious admissions being based on a point system still lingers in the minds of some, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the LSA point system unconstitutional. The revamped admission system forgoes awarding a specific number of points to disadvantaged minorities.

Now the LSA admissions policy focuses more on the student’s goals, motivations and their leadership skills, Matlock said.

However, it does not surprise Matlock that some non-minority students would perceive minority college students as unqualified to attend the University.

“For 90 percent of the white students (at the University), they will have come from very segregated communities. Yet we know that a lot of students value the diversity, but it still does not mean there won’t be stereotyping,” he said.

“In many ways, affirmative action has become a scapegoat. If I don’t get into the University of Michigan and I am white, I blame affirmative action.”

Yet Matlock says ethnic stereotyping in general loses its hold over many students during the course of their time at the University, due to the open minds of the students and their ongoing interactions with their classmates of different backgrounds.

It’s good news for Johnson, but even with the stereotyping by some students, he said it won’t hold him back. He said he knows that it was his own effort that brought him to the University.

Nor will the stereotyping change his impression of the University. “I think the diversity will make an enormous difference. I couldn’t have asked for a better place. I couldn’t ask for more.