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Tuesday, January 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Achieving equity in an unfair world

Special to The Times

Whether the Supreme Court rules for or against the University of Michigan's admissions policies, what is undisputed is this country's lack of progress in achieving educational equity, especially among African Americans.

Despite a half century of civil-rights activism, black enrollment at selective universities such as Michigan is on the decline. Those who do access the inner circle of privilege typically find their daily experiences to be anything but "race neutral," a phrase that strikes me as downright silly, given the ubiquity of the race problem.

My first academic position was at the University of Cincinnati, where in 1982 I became the first woman and first black ever hired in the architecture program. Being first turned out to be irrelevant since the school's director refused to give me a single teaching assignment in that program during my two-year stay.

In 1984, I was recruited to integrate another architecture program at the University of Michigan. Getting a meaningful teaching assignment was a continuing challenge, but the social climate was the real source of emotional distress.

Because Michigan is one of the most geographically segregated states in the nation, the average student and many Michigan-educated faculty had grown up in segregated communities. They were simply unaccustomed to encountering persons of color, especially in positions of authority.

My experience of marginalization in the architecture program was shared by African Americans across campus. Racial tensions became so extreme in 1987 that the Legislature threatened to withhold funding unless progress was made in making the campus more hospitable for minorities.

Believing that an increased minority presence would improve the social climate, administrators conceived an aggressive plan called the Michigan Mandate, which initially focused on bolstering the dismally low percentages of African American, Asian and Hispanic faculty and students.

Although the number of black faculty increased, our salaries and rates of promotion remained considerably lower than those of non-minority faculty. Experiences of marginalization also continued: a black student observes that an instructor never voluntarily visits her desk to review her work as he does with white students; a black professor discovers that his students have evaluated him lower than his white teaching assistant on "knowledge of the subject"; and I file a formal complaint when a dean announces that he will cancel an election in which I am a candidate for program chair and, instead, appoints my white male opponent.

Yet, this was a heady period of working with central administration to address the race problem. Activist faculty urged going beyond numerical increases to create a truly multicultural university. We proposed new models of teaching, conducted diversity audits and researched the barriers to recruiting and retaining underrepresented persons.

We worked overtime, fitting ourselves into institutional norms, while also seeking to transform those norms. By the time I left Michigan in 1998 to integrate yet another architecture program at the University of Washington, we had not only made clear progress in increasing the number of minority faculty and students, we were also affecting the character of the university.

The success of the Michigan Mandate was perhaps what attracted the attention of affirmative-action opponents, who sought out unsuccessful applicants to pursue two cases against the university's admission policies.

President Bush believes the methods used by Michigan amount to numerical quotas, which the Supreme Court's Bakke decision banned in 1978. But the Bakke case came about in a similar manner in response to the earlier, and even greater, progress on affirmative action that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s.

During the period that quotas were acceptable, striking advances in educational equity occurred. Witness my experience at Columbia University, where I was one of 26 blacks admitted to the architecture program, making up an astounding 25 percent of the student population in 1969.

This group significantly expanded the number of black architects, who totaled just 867 of the nation's 85,000 architects in 1991. Two of the 100 black women who are architects today were in that group at Columbia. These are profound successes that the Michigan Mandate has not begun to achieve.

The race-neutral programs touted by the Bush administration that enroll the top tier of students from each high school are strikingly racist in assuming segregated high schools as the norm. Holding them up as models of affirmative action makes a mockery of the reality that minorities just do not have equal access to education and the mobility it provides.

Unless non-minorities are willing to acknowledge that they begin life's journey with the extraordinary privilege of whiteness, no program for achieving education equity will meet the litmus test of fairness. Fairness within an unfair situation is an oxymoron.

Sharon Egretta Sutton is a professor of architecture, urban design and planning at the University of Washington and a fellow in the American Institute of Architects.

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