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Exploring affirmative action

Michigan exhibit explores controversial policy
/ Source: The Associated Press

Debates on affirmative action, diversity and race are common at the University of Michigan.

But it’s still surprising to walk through a campus student center and hear opinions about the school’s stance on the issue piped through wall-mounted stereo speakers.

The voices filtering into the Media Union are students interviewed during the past two years and they invite passers-by to a new multimedia exhibit, “Views and Voices: U-M’s Case for Diversity,” which runs through Feb. 20.

Inside a one-room gallery that evokes the feel of a courthouse, the voices switch to lawyers pleading their cases for and against the school’s admissions policies to the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The high court in June upheld a general race-conscious program at the University of Michigan law school but struck down the university’s undergraduate formula of awarding admission points based on race.

Centered on a photo essay by university photographer Marcia Ledford, the exhibit uses quotes, newspaper clippings and history to explore the lawsuits, their context and the ramifications from the perspectives of advocates and detractors.

“I knew whether we won or lost ... it was important to document, because even if we lost, it was a noble effort and we needed to memorialize that,” says Ledford, an attorney who for years worked on civil rights cases. “When we won, it made it all the sweeter.”

Ledford makes no apologies for her opinions on the rulings.

“I will tell you, when I shot this essay, I shot it telling Michigan’s story, I didn’t feel it necessary to shoot a balanced piece,” she says.

But in the interest of promoting dialogue and educational integrity, “Views and Voices” is as much about opposing arguments as it is about the university victory.

An image of the Supreme Court building is superimposed on the gallery’s back wall, where a timeline details the background of the lawsuits filed by three white applicants denied admission to the university. Quotes and pictures from plaintiffs and university lawyers mingle with enlarged renderings of the first page of each lawsuit.

Laptop computers project alternating images of statements from students, professors, lawyers, Supreme Court justices and others. A side wall features panels stating “Michigan’s arguments” and “Petitioner’s arguments” side-by-side.

Tough issue to talk about“We knew this is a very difficult issue to talk about, even difficult for people to know their own feelings about,” says Brett Ashley, director of marketing communications for the university. “We just wanted to be honest about the opinions that are out there.”

Portions of the exhibit put the cases in the context of history, outlining landmark court battles and details of race relations in the United States.

A four-minute movie titled “University of Michigan, 1954” — the year of the “Brown v. Board of Education” ruling — and another timeline illustrate the highs and lows of racial struggles on campus. The 1954 Supreme Court decision determined that separate-but-equal schools for white and black students were inherently unfair and unconstitutional.

Ledford traveled with the university’s law team to moot court practices in Washington, D.C., in the days leading up to the arguments before the Supreme Court, taking photographs.

And there are the rallies — from the height of a midday protest to the midnight calm of those who huddled in sleeping bags and makeshift tents in the shadow of the Capitol on the eve of the arguments. Many photos capture the emotion of a face, like that of a young man standing at a rally behind an older man whose head is bowed.

“The younger man is looking off, as if into the future, with a very contemplative look on his face,” Ledford says. “If I could have gotten close enough, I would have asked him what he was thinking, because I will wonder forever.”

A prominently displayed vertical photograph shows a line of people snaking up the steps and into the Supreme Court on the day of the arguments, looking small aside huge stone statues that appear to sit in judgment.

Meanwhile, Michigan students and faculty are continuing the process in an interactive art and design class offered as part of the school’s commemorations of the 50th anniversary of “Brown v. Board.” The cross-disciplinary class is working on a traveling exhibit, which Ashley hopes will be ready this fall.