Michigan students at center of debate

Affirmative action case sparks activism, apathy

April 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Slapped on a signpost, no bigger than a name tag, a neatly printed sticker hovers above the Diag, the University of Michigan's main square. "Dear Mr. President," it says, "this is what democracy looks like."

Black and Latino students have wrapped gags over their mouths to signify how small their presence would be without affirmative action, and have mentioned the swastikas they sometimes find scribbled on their doors.

Conservative groups selling morning bagels and muffins have charged white students extra, to drive home the effect of racial preferences and have complained about having their rally posters yanked away and torn.

Classroom discussions about affirmative action break out like brush fires, and the debate can crowd out e-mail banter about parties and pranks at the fraternity house.

Yet a day after the Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in cases that challenge the University of Michigan's consideration of race in its efforts to increase minority enrollment in its undergraduate program and its law school, campus posters spoke of weekend luaus, $6 concerts and spring break, as if the issue had fled many students' minds.

"A lot of people don't care because it affects future students, not us," said Noella Almeida, a 19-year-old junior, her fingertips a chalky blue from scrawling invitations to a cultural event on sidewalks. "A lot of students didn't even know there was a huge case."

There is a curious mixture of passion and apathy, of immersion and disengagement, here at the focal point of the nation's fight over affirmative action. Student groups on each side of the debate have dug in their heels and ceased talking to one another, giving the impression of an intractable conflict on campus.

At the same time, many students sit quietly on the sidelines, feeling pressured to pick a side but too torn to decide, or simply too tired of the issue to care.

"We've been bombarded with this ever since we arrived on campus," said Brian Farrar, a 20-year-old junior who is the host of a talk show on the campus radio station. "The politics have been so divisive, people have just gotten turned off."

In a referendum connected with campus elections two weeks ago, 41 percent of students voted in favor of the university's policy to consider race in admissions, 41 percent voted against it, and the rest could not decide. The turnout of about 6,300 was too small to be adequately representative of the nearly 39,000 students here, elections officers warned, but it certainly reinforced the sense of a deeply divided campus.

Even ostensible allies have a hard time getting along. Tensions between two campus groups that favor affirmative action are high enough that they hired separate buses for an overnight trip to Washington recently, and staged different demonstrations there. A campus group that opposes affirmative action is also split into camps.

"The cases have forced people to stick by their convictions and say, `You're either for or against it,'" said Jason Mironov, rules and elections chairman for the Michigan Student Assembly, the student government. "There's no middle ground anymore."

The public clashes have had their benefits, though. Professors marvel at how eager students are to debate the issue, and they capitalize on the interest to draw out the reticent. The day after the hearings, for example, James W. Cook, an assistant professor of history, came to class ready to talk about the origins of rock 'n' roll, but found his students deeply engaged in discussions about the court.

"I just tried to stay out of their way and let them talk," Cook said. "It was a real pleasure."

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