Monday, January 16, 2006

I'd like to use the occasion of today's Martin Luther King Day holiday to reminisce about the inaugural observation of the King holiday 20 years ago, January 20, 1986 (although King's birthday is January 15, the holiday takes place on the third Monday of every January).

The University of Michigan has always had an extensive series of events to mark MLK Day, including marches, speakers, symposia, and films. Although the greatest number of events are on the actual holiday, others are held in the days before and after. This year's schedule of events gives you an idea of the scope of the activities.

My main recollection of King Day 1986 was of participating in a march up South University, ending up on the Diag. The next day's Ann Arbor News ran a couple of photos of the march, which I have saved to this day (please e-mail me, via the link to my faculty website on the upper-right portion of the page, if you'd like to see a copy). If you look closely enough, I can be seen on the left-hand side of both photos. My hair and beard were a little heavier back then than now, and I wore contact lenses at that time.

The only other social psychology grad student I remember also participating in the march was Jill Klein. I can't pick Jill out among the crowd in the newspaper photos; she's a tad shorter than I am, so she must have been blocked from view.

I also remember going to the keynote addresses in the years up to and including my graduation year of 1989. According to this UM history of MLK Day events, subsumed under the title of "MLK Symposium," these speakers included: William Gray, then a member of Congress and later head of the United Negro College Fund (1987 keynoter); Douglas Wilder, then Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, later Governor, and now, after years out of public office, Mayor of Richmond (1988); and Willie Brown, then Speaker of the California Assembly and later Mayor of San Francisco (1989).

Back in 1983, when the U.S. Congress was taking up the bill to create a King holiday, I was still an undergraduate at UCLA. I remember typing up a petition in support of such a holiday to send to one of our elected representatives, and getting family members to sign it. Seeing the bill become law was very gratifying, and my actual experience of the holiday during its early years was greatly enhanced by all the activities taking place at UM.

It's hard to imagine any other universities' MLK Day programs being more extensive than UM's, but I haven't done any rigorous comparisons. Michigan observes MLK Day the way I think it should be observed -- looking backward and looking forward, and trying to bring American society ever closer to realizing Dr. King's dreams.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

I just finished reading the book A Black and White Case: How Affirmative Action Survived Its Greatest Legal Challenge, which I picked up over the holidays. The 2004 book by Greg Stohr, refers, of course, to the two lawsuits against the University of Michigan, challenging the use of race as a factor in its admissions policies at the undergraduate (College of Literature, Science, and the Arts) and Law School levels.

As many of you will recall, the U.S. Supreme Court announced in 2003 that the UM Law School's admissions policy was constitutional (Grutter v. Bollinger), but the undergraduate policy was not (Gratz v. Bollinger). In the aftermath, however, the university was able to modify its undergraduate admissions procedures to make them more like the Law School's and thus preserve affirmative action at the undergraduate level, too. (UM continues to maintain an information page on the admissions lawsuits, on which new legal and research developments are reported.)

What's notable for the UM's social and personality psychology programs is that three professors -- all of whom are discussed in the book -- played roles in the university's defense of affirmative action. A key component of that defense was the research-based claim that diversity was educationally beneficial for all students at the university, "...a case that would actually prove the value of diversity -- how it enriched a university, produced more thoughtful citizens, and helped overcome the racial segregation that still permeated American society" (pp. 79-80).

Stohr's writing, based on interviews with many of the principals in the cases, takes the reader behind the scenes into the planning, preparation, and argumentation of the cases up the federal judicial system to the Supreme Court. Particularly vivid is the description of a meeting between Nancy Cantor, a former UM psychology professor and UM provost during the early stages of the lawsuits (she's currently chancellor at Syracuse) and John Payton, one of the attorneys representing UM.

Cantor urged Payton to get in touch with the chairman of Michigan's psychology department, Patricia Gurin, who had been studying students' experience with diversity on the campus since 1990... And Cantor gave the attorneys the name of Claude Steele, a Stanford psychology professor who had studied the effect of race on standardized test performance (p. 79; Claude had previously been on the faculty at UM).

The roles of Nancy, Pat, and Claude are discussed further in the rest of the book.

One of the testimonial blurbs on the back cover refers to the book as a "page-turner." I concur with that characterization, as I zipped through the book's 300-plus pages in just a few days.

I have alluded to the UM affirmative action cases in a previous posting reminiscing on Pat's 2002 retirement festschrift (see June 14, 2004 entry in that month's archives). Stohr's book, like Pat's retirement event, reminded me of how important diversity and helping members of historically disenfranchised groups participate fully in the university and in the broader society are to members of the UM family. You could even say that these values are part of the very fabric of the University of Michigan and perhaps even synonymous with it.

Having either done research with, taken classes from, or served as a Teaching Assistant for each of the three aforementioned professors during the 1980s, it has been especially exciting for me to see the fruits of their work in the historic Supreme Court cases.