Race, history and the role of public universities are at the forefront of academic discourse as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs two critical cases that aim to prohibit the consideration of race in college and university admissions.
Scholars from U-M and Queens College, The City University of New York, discussed diversity, equity and inclusion and U-M’s readiness to educate the next multifaceted generation of citizens at a March 7 panel discussion to mark the inauguration of Santa J. Ono, U-M’s first Asian American president.
The discussion was one of two that took place that morning as part of the Presidential Inauguration Symposium.
Frank Wu, a U-M alumnus and current president of Queens College at CUNY, delivered a keynote address in which he said framing the issue of affirmative action as an argument or a debate is a mistake.
“To start with affirmative action is to begin at the end,” Wu said, explaining that affirmative action programs were created as a means to an end. “We must address the underlying issues. Instead of debating affirmative action, let us dialogue about racial discrimination and racial disparities.”
As the country awaits the high court’s decision, panelists acknowledged U-M’s leadership role in support of affirmative action and called attention to campus efforts intended to foster an inclusive environment for future students.
Panel moderator Corie Pauling, president and CEO of U-M’s Alumni Association, defined those future students, categorized as Generation Alpha, and pointed out their presence on campus is coming as soon as 2028.
She said the group, which includes all children born in or after 2010 — the same year the iPad was created — is tech savvy, includes avid climate supporters and will be the most diverse generation in history, which will ultimately shape their expectations around inclusivity.
Elizabeth Cole, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity, introduced the audience to the Inclusive History Project. The project is U-M’s multiyear initiative that will study the university’s history regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, including questions of race and racism, and broader histories of exclusion and resistance across its three campuses.
“This project is a brave and important effort to help us better understand all of our lived experiences,” said Cole, a University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor and professor of psychology, of women’s and gender studies, and of Afroamerican and African studies in LSA. “We hope this work and this conversation will better inform our future and create an inclusive environment.”
With any reckoning of the university’s past by the Inclusive History Project, U-M has to do more to eliminate Indigenous erasure and uplift the voices of Indigenous people and communities, said Stephanie Fryberg, a University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor and professor of psychology in LSA.
In 2021, Fryberg founded the Representing the Research for Indigenous Social Action and Equity Center, a collective of scholars dedicated to developing ways to achieve equity for Indigenous peoples throughout society.
“We’ve conducted studies that show 80% of Americans hold a bias that Indigenous people are a people of the past,” she said. “Often we hear conversations, speeches, stories, writings of history as though Indigenous people are not only not here today … but also a retelling of history about racism in this country that does not include us.”
Fryberg also called on U-M to do more to live up to the Treaty of Fort Meigs, which acknowledged U-M resides on Indigenous ancestral, traditional and contemporary lands, and strives for a decolonized future.
At a time of uncertainty for university-driven diversity efforts, Morela Hernandez, Ligia Ramirez de Reynolds Collegiate Professor of Public Policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, called attention to an opportunity for U-M.
“We have the opportunity to develop the type of leaders that not only care, but are skilled in taking information and facts of the past, to develop a more equitable future,” she said. “There is a vibrancy that exists (at U-M) — as we engage in conversation across disciplines — that looks to take on these large challenges.”
Wu concluded the conversation touting Ono as the perfect “servant leader” to move the university’s DEI efforts forward.
“Perhaps we think of diversity like we think about democracy,” Wu said. “It’s a process, not a product or an outcome, with the same need of participation and the engagement of individuals and communities. We must stand up and speak out.”