Affirmative Action Frankenstein: How U of M Bypasses Prop. 2

This October, the Michigan Daily published an article detailing the progress of the University of Michigan’s five-year Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) plan, an initiative launched in October 2016. The article features quotes from an interview with LSA Dean Andrew Martin, particularly on the topic of faculty diversity. Speaking candidly, Martin states that recently-launched tenureship ‘pipelines’ for postdoctoral students were intentionally designed to “help increase the diversity of our faculty.” For one such program, the Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship, this certainly seems to be the case. The Daily article cites Associate Dean of the DEI and professor of Psychology Fiona Lee on the topic:

In its first year, Lee said, the program received 762 applicants, hiring seven new faculty members out of that pool –– all of whom are underrepresented minorities. This year, they received 936 applications, from which they will make up to 13 new hires.

These numbers are intriguing from a statistical point of view what was the racial breakdown of the 762 initial applicants? What about the next year’s thirteen acceptances? How many white people applied, and have any been accepted? Even without all the data (which may be sealed shut), these questions point to a larger one: how exactly do these admissions processes work? Both Martin’s comments and the numbers seem to suggest hiring committees actively give preference to minority applicants on grounds of race and ethnicity. If so, this program would necessarily violate Article I of Michigan’s state constitution, amended via referendum in 2006 (Prop. 2) to include, “The University of Michigan… and any other public college or university… shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

In researching the University’s ongoing efforts to diversify faculty, largely carried out through the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and its five-year plan, I discovered a fascinating pattern. In short, administrators have spent an enormous amount of effort planning and implementing techniques designed to circumvent Prop. 2 by any means necessary. The DEI in particular has explored every conceivable policy loophole to tiptoe past the law. This was done in order to meet their bottom line: greatly increased numbers of new minority faculty hires. While some of these strategies are harmless, others seem to present serious ethical, intellectual, and legal concerns. As a rule of thumb, these less savory tactics are intentionally obfuscated. They are kept as far away from the surface as possible, documented only deep within lengthy internal materials and masked with the opaque language of academic jargon.

Returning to the Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship, one begins to see the contours of this pattern to which I refer. Despite its rather unassuming name, the Fellowship seeks to financially support the research of one particular type of academic, namely “diversity scholars.” The LSA’s National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) defines “diversity scholars” as academics “committed to enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education.” The nature of this ‘scholarship’ might partially explain a comparatively higher level of interest in the Fellowship from academics who are minorities. But it certainly wouldn’t account for the Fellowship’s statistically near-flawless minority hiring record; surely countless white academics are also engaged in such work. Reading on, the Fellowship’s online application page prominently features the following text directly above the application itself:

The program is particularly interested in scholars with a demonstrated interest in bringing to their research and undergraduate teaching the critical perspective that comes from their non-traditional educational background and/or scholarly understanding of the experiences of groups historically underrepresented in higher education.

What exactly is a “scholarly understanding of the experiences of groups historically underrepresented in higher education” and why is it paired with the phrase “non-traditional educational background?” One might note that this convoluted sentence, if read quickly enough, appears to openly indicate special preference for minority applicants. In fact, removing a couple carefully chosen words, the text reads: “The program is… particularly interested in scholars with… the critical perspective that comes from their… experiences [in] groups historically underrepresented in higher education.”

If you have ever applied for a job with any sort of affirmative action-style program, you may have seen a sentence nearly identical to this one in a similar location. This subtle substitution, along with the clever wording of the Fellowship text itself, are not mere coincidences. Exploring further, the NCID website features an embedded YouTube video entitled, “What is Diversity Research?” Around the 40 second mark, retired professor Leslie Richards from the University of the District of Columbia defines the work of diversity scholars as such: “you bring a perspective to an issue that comes not from the mainstream perspective, or the majority white male perspective.” It goes without saying that, of the video’s five featured panelists, none outwardly fit this ‘mainstream’ bill.

Professor Richards’ comment is the final piece of the puzzle. Diversity scholars do not just promote policies that boost the number of minority faculty members — they are almost always minorities to begin with. By the very definition of diversity research, hiring diversity scholars and guiding them to tenure track positions automatically increases faculty diversity. When Dean Martin and Professor Lee refer to the Fellowship’s success in “increasing faculty diversity,” they are actually referring to the fact that the Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship does not recruit white men.

Does this particular diversity strategy violate Section 26 of the Michigan constitution? The University might argue the following point: the Fellowship discriminates only incidentally, since being a minority is just part and parcel of being a hirable diversity scholar. However, the particular wording of the amendment leads me to believe this would not hold up in court. In one subsection, the amendment explicitly makes an exception for “bona fide qualifications based on sex that are reasonably necessary to the normal operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Even without a legal background, I’d imagine this subsection implies that any other bona fide qualifications besides sex (IE, race) are not exceptions, and thus fall under the amendment’s primary definition of prohibited practices.

The Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship is just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this year the DEI published a 170-page Year One Progress Report. Organized by each ‘unit’ at the University, the report lists virtually every academic department’s DEI-themed goals, and how each goal has been specifically pursued. Some variation of “diversify our faculty” appeared in virtually every department subsection, suggesting a rather strong mandate from above. Different departments listed a sentence or two of their own “individualized approach” for getting the job done, including:

  • Add extensive language to application materials designed to signal an explicit commitment to recruiting minorities (11).
  • Create interview questions designed to allow a favorable response from minority applicants (44).
  • Require all individuals who make hiring decisions to participate in mandatory DEI training (48).
  • Insert one “diversity champion” into each hiring committee who is tasked with advocating DEI principles and goals during the hiring process (56).
  • All hiring committee members must sign agreement to “uphold principles of DEI” during hiring processes (59).
  • Shift core standard of admission from “specific experience” to “capacity” (71).

As previously mentioned, these “individualized approaches” appeared on a spectrum, ranging from tame candidate targeting to blatant (but unspoken) affirmative action. The Matthaei Botanical Garden & Nichols Arb seemed a bit helpless defending their humble operation, duly addressing staff diversity concerns by promising to “extend our existing unbiased hiring processes” (71). For the record, I take little issue with several of the most frequently cited tactics, such as utilizing networking software to identify qualified minority candidates. At the very least, such methods do not undermine fair, merit-based competition amongst candidates of all races.

However, the less palatable examples (like those bulleted above) evoke Kafka and Orwell in their unsubtle, bureaucratic intimidation tactics. Mandatory training sessions and coerced agreements to “uphold” DEI ideology sound fitting of The Trial or 1984. One can only imagine the practical function of a “diversity champion” in a hiring committee; do they simply force through every minority candidate who meets minimum qualifications? Moreover, doing away with standardized measures of academic merit as neutral as “specific experience” in order to meet DEI demands is nothing short of insulting to minority applicants. Finally, wording job listings and applications to signal “we are not interested in white men” without outright saying the words themselves is an unacceptable means to an unsettling end. Perhaps those behind programs like the Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship might consider how their logic — that you have to be a certain race to ‘understand’ a given scholarly study — has extremely dangerous historical implications.

Whether or not the DEI’s faculty diversity campaign is wholly legal (I’ll leave this for lawyers to decide), Michigan students and taxpayers should be aware of what is going on behind the scenes. Any white male Sociology major looking for postgraduate work might want to know that his identity effectively discounts him from certain opportunities at the U of M. Those who voted “yes” on Prop. 2 might also be interested to know that the University has entirely rejected the spirit of their amendment. Rather than respect the state of Michigan’s democratically decided values, University administrators have worked tirelessly to revive an affirmative action Frankenstein. Finally, the DEI’s fixation on diversity numbers have naturally led to some profoundly disturbing administrative practices. It is imperative that we bring these practices out of their bureaucratic hiding places and into the light of critical discussion.

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About Amo Manuel

Amo Manuel was a contributor to the Michigan Review.