Now and Then: Minorities and Michigan

Elizabeth Redden, Higher Education, June 19, 2007

The percentage of African American, Hispanic and Native American students admitted to the University of Michigan Law School for next fall fell from 39.6 percent for those students whose applications were considered before enactment of a state law banning race-based preferences in December to 5.5 percent thereafter. While critics of affirmative action read the numbers as proof of the unfair impact of preferences based on race, advocates for affirmative action said the numbers were early indicators of just how damaging the law will be.

“We believe this is the first clear evidence of how disastrous Proposal 2 will be,” said George Washington, lead lawyer for By Any Means Necessary, a Detroit-based group that has sued to overturn Proposal 2, a ballot initiative approved by 58 percent of Michigan voters last fall barring public colleges from using affirmative action in admissions. “As in California and in Texas, it shows up first in the law schools—and most dramatically.”

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” added Maya Simmons, a third-year Michigan law student and immediate past chair of the Black Law Students Alliance there. “What we feared most is what the results of Prop 2 are.”

The overall picture for underrepresented minority admissions at Michigan Law School this year does not differ dramatically from the year before: 192 of 869, or 22.1 percent, of minority applicants gained acceptance in the 2006 cycle, while 183 of 915 minority applicants, or 20 percent, were admitted for fall 2007.

But it’s the timing of the admissions decisions that’s striking: Out of 396 completed applications from minority students considered on or before December 28, the day before the law took effect,

157 were accepted. From December 29 on, just 26 minority student applications were accepted—despite the fact that admissions officers considered 476 applications, a greater number of minority student applications than those considered before the law’s enactment. (Michigan’s law school has a rolling admissions policy).

In comparison, the acceptance rate for all students, including white and Asian American students and members of underrepresented minority groups, rose from 19.5 percent before December 29 to 22.8 percent after the law went into effect. (The total percentages of Michigan law applicants of all races admitted throughout the entire admissions cycle stayed relatively constant from the 2006 to 2007 cycles, at about 20 to 21 percent).

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Yet, the director of admissions at the University of Michigan Law School said Monday that rhetoric regarding an impending or even preordained disaster is misplaced, with the disparities in minority admissions from fall to spring reflecting concentrated efforts on the part of admissions staff and volunteers to encourage top candidates to apply early.

“There were differences, but it’s not going to be as stark as these numbers suggest,” said Sarah C. Zearfoss, assistant dean and director of admissions. “Starting in about August, we started recruiting people, including minorities, asking the strongest candidates we could find . . . to apply early, so a huge percentage of those 400 applicants from the pre-Prop 2 were very, very strong minority applicants.”

“[By Any Means Necessary] says what this means is we won’t be able to admit anyone who’s a minority under Prop 2 and it’s catastrophic,” Zearfoss said. “That’s not what it means. What it means is a lot of the people in the 157 group [of minorities admitted by late December] are people who might have been in the 26 group [of minority students admitted after that] too.”

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This year’s admissions statistics are, however, ripe for scrutiny on at least two different levels: On the one hand, the lower proportion of minority acceptances this spring relative to last—5.5 percent this year as opposed to about 25 percent in spring 2006—raises flags among affirmative action advocates that Proposal 2 signals the “resegregation” of Michigan’s public colleges.

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“Comparing the rates immediately before Proposal 2 was passed with the rates immediately after Proposal 2 was passed may not be fair,” said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes affirmative action. “The numbers in the fall last year may be skewed by the fact that the University of Michigan Law School was weighing race even more heavily than it had in years past in an effort to get in under the wire, before Proposal 2 was passed.”

“However, putting that aside, I would expect that the percentage of students who were getting racially discriminatory preferences in their favor would go down when those preferences stopped.” That doesn’t mean that those students won’t go on to lower-tier law schools or even to become successful lawyers, Clegg said—referencing research by Richard Sander, of the University of California at Los Angeles, finding that by admitting poorly qualified black applicants who would perform better at less prestigious institutions, top law schools actually do them a disservice.

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