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The University of Michigan is currently involved in two legal cases challenging its admissions policies that consider race as one of many factors affecting the admissions decision. Analyses of data from the Michigan Student Study have played an important role in the University’s legal defense of its policies.

In the famous U.S. Supreme Court Bakke case on affirmative action in Higher Education, Justice Lewis Powell wrote the pivotal opinion, arguing that "The atmosphere of speculation, experiment, and creation--so essential to the quality of higher education --is widely believed to be promoted by a diverse student body...It is not too much to say that the nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples" (Bakke, 1978, p 2760.) Since the Bakke decision, the primary legal justification for the use of affirmative action in admissions to selective institutions has been that the educational benefits of diversity constitute a compelling governmental interest.

However, while educators in U.S. higher education have long agreed that diverse student bodies have educational value for all students, these arguments have, until recently, lacked empirical evidence and a strong theoretical rationale for the link between diversity and educational outcomes. Without this evidence, the question of whether racial/ethnic diversity is a compelling state interest justifying the use of race-sensitive admissions policies remains controversial.

In recent legal tests of affirmative action, federal lower courts across the country have produced conflicting rulings on diversity as a compelling governmental interest. Some courts have questioned Justice Powell's argument and have advocated that racial/ethnic diversity doesn’t have any impact on the educational experience (e.g., The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hopwood v. University of Texas) and others have supported the use of diversity (e.g., The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Smith v. University of Washington Law School).

Given the legal questioning of the diversity argument, an important component of the University of Michigan's defense in the lawsuits challenging its admissions policies was the theoretical rationale and empirical research evidence presented in Dr. Patricia Gurin's expert testimony on the compelling need for diversity in higher education. A major part of this expert testimony came from analyses of data from the Michigan Student Study. These analyses are reported in the statement prepared by the University in “The Compelling Need for Diversity in Higher Education,” and in “Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes” (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado & Gurin, Harvard Educational Review, In Press).

These analyses (together with those from a large multi-institutional study) indicated that interactions with peers from diverse racial backgrounds both in classrooms and informally, are positively associated with what Gurin referred to as “learning outcomes.” Students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes and growth in intellectual engagement and motivation. The benefits of a racially diverse student body were also seen in a second major area, what Gurin referred to as “democracy outcomes.” Students who experienced more racial and ethnic diversity in classroom and informal settings were better able to consider and understand multiple perspectives, to deal with conflicts that different perspectives sometimes create, and to appreciate the common values and integration forces they share with other racial/ethnic groups. This increased understanding of both differences and commonalties with other racial/ethnic groups helps equip students for participation in our increasingly heterogeneous and complex democracy.

The Michigan Student Study was chosen for these analyses not only for the obvious reason that it was a study of the students of the institution that was the target of the legal challenges. The Michigan Student Study has several qualities that were necessary for any research addressing the question of the educational benefits of diversity.

First of all, the Michigan Student Study contained a large number of questions both on race-relevant attitudes and behaviors, and on the attitudes and behaviors that are not specific to racial/ethnic diversity but deal with the more general issues that are part of the college experience. This permitted a broader analysis of the relationship of experiences with racial/ethnic diversity to general educational outcomes than was possible in most other existing research studies on college students.

Secondly, the MSS is a longitudinal study, following the same students in a series of surveys from the time they entered the University until the end of their fourth year. Most of the educational outcomes presented in the analyses in the Gurin report were measured in both the entrance and senior surveys. Thus, the analyses of the relationships between racial/ethnic experiences and educational outcomes controlled for the students' scores on these outcome measures when they entered the university, indicating that these relationships were not just a reflection of "selection" factors that predisposed students with certain educational attitudes and behaviors to choose these racial/ethnic experiences. Most studies in the college research literature are cross-sectional.

Finally, the Michigan Student Study had a sample unusually large for institutional studies. This meant that there was a large enough representation of African American and Asian American as well as White students, to permit parallel analyses of the impact of diversity experiences on educational outcomes across the three groups, and to examine the educational benefits of diversity for all students — white students and students of color.

As we have indicated, each of these three qualities is fairly unusual in the research literature on college students. The combination of all three made the Michigan Student Study uniquely relevant for the investigation of the educational benefits of diversity for all students.

As the challenge to the University of Michigan's admissions policies, and the University's defense of these policies has proceeded through the courts, the legal rulings have mirrored the conflicting rulings in the nation generally. The University of Michigan is involved in two cases, one challenging its undergraduate admissions and the other its law school admissions. In Gratz v. Bollinger, et al. (2000), the district court ruled in favor of its undergraduate admissions policy, finding that diversity was a compelling governmental interest that justified that policy. In Grutter v. Bollinger, et al. (2001, 2002), a different district court judge ruled that the educational benefits of diversity are not a compelling state interest, and even if they were, the Law School's policy was not “narrowly tailored” to the interest in diversity. Both cases were appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. This court overturned the lower court decision in Grutter, deciding in favor of the University. As of today (September 2002), The Sixth Circuit Court has not yet ruled on the Gratz decision. The Grutter decision has been appealed to the United States Supreme Court.


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