A New Campus Crusader

Growing up in Georgia, Mary Sue Coleman was caught in the school-desegregation battle. After the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, hard-line segregationists threatened to padlock public schools before they would admit black students. So Coleman's father moved his family north to Iowa. "My parents were very scared," recalls Coleman. "They wanted to go to a place where public schools were supported."

Nearly 50 years later, Coleman is still in the thick of the fight. But this time, she's president of the University of Michigan and writing the rule book on how to foster diversity. Last June, Michigan won its own landmark case when the Supreme Court upheld its affirmative-action policy for admitting students to its law school. However, the court struck down Michigan's undergrad admissions process, which, unlike the law school, awarded extra points to minorities to give them an edge. So U-M drafted a new undergrad application--one that many other colleges are scrutinizing as the next model for diversity. But opponents are intent on outlawing race-based college admissions. "I hope Michigan voters would see that this is something that will help our nation," she says.

What Coleman sees is the opportunity to go beyond traditional definitions of affirmative action to create a more "diverse diversity," based on students from wider socioeconomic backgrounds. She notes that poor kids are nearly as scarce on campus as minorities. Just one in five of Michigan's 25,000 undergrads comes from a family making less than $50,000 a year. Coleman is after kids with backgrounds like her father's, who grew up in Kentucky's coal country. "Our research shows that all students benefit from having different points of view in a classroom," she says. "A student from the hills of Kentucky would be quite interesting and different."

To go beyond black and white diversity, Michigan has crafted an application with an 18-page form that delves deeper into personal information, asking if your parents and grandparents went to college and if you help support your family. One of the four new essay questions challenges all students to explain how they would contribute to campus diversity. A boy from Michigan's mostly white Upper Peninsula wrote of the tolerance lessons he learned helping his sister come out as a lesbian. Says Coleman: "Those are the kinds of kids we want."

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Coleman is comfortable plowing new ground. Inspired by the sputnik launch, she became a scientist and broke into the old-boys club of the lab. And she's the first woman president at Michigan. Initially, some feared she wouldn't fight for affirmative action with the zeal of her predecessor Lee Bollinger, a legal scholar. But she's driven by something more personal. "Because I'd grown up in the South," she says, "I felt like this is just so important to the nation." Now the nation will see how Coleman's life lessons will redefine diversity on campus--and in society.

A New Campus Crusader | News