I knew I had to talk to ex-U-M associate provost after Supreme Court ruling

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 29 it was ending the use of affirmative action as a factor for college admissions, there was one person I knew I had to talk to about it as he has been a champion for diversity for so long — Ted Spencer. 

Known simply as “Ted” to dozens of academic admission leaders around the country to whom he has helped and still gives guidance, Spencer is sometimes invited to speak at events around the country to talk about increasing diversity in corporate America and academia too. 

Spencer, 81, was University of Michigan’s associate provost and executive director of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions until retiring in 2014.   


Spencer joined U-M in 1989 from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he was associate admissions director. There, he helped expand the pool of candidates for the academy, something he was brought in by U-M to do as well. 

Ironically, in the Supreme Court’s decision two weeks ago, the justices left intact the ability for military academies to continue to use race in their admission policies. 

“I knew it was coming,” Spencer told me as we talked about the court’s decision on Wednesday. “But I still couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t sleep that first night knowing the impact it would have on colleges and opportunities.” 

Spencer, who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, during the Jim Crow era, joined the Air Force after graduating from college in 1963. He served in Vietnam, France, north Africa and various places across the U.S before joining the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 1976. 

“My job was to help attract more minority candidates to the academy,” Spencer said. “It was difficult then and still is today. How small was the pool of candidates I was able to find for the academy? I kept their names in a shoe box.” 

He would call on recent academy graduates, as well as active duty alums, to help identify and recruit prospective candidates. 

Spencer told me he appreciated the portion of the high court’s recent ruling that kept affirmation action for military academies, but believes they missed the point when it came to colleges. 

“It truly is baffling,” he said. “We cannot have an effective military if we don’t have diversity. Well, the same thing is true for our colleges and universities.” 

U-M has been at the forefront of our nation’s affirmation action debate. Spencer was involved in U-M’s case before the high court in 2003 when the court ruled it could continue to use race as a factor in admissions. 

Members of the news media talk on April 1, 2003, to the involved parties of the affirmative action lawsuit, which included representatives from the University of Michigan, who argued before the Supreme Court in support of its admission policies. The delegation of attorneys and administrators who brought the cases to fruition celebrate on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Michigan students on the street began singing

It was short-lived, as Michigan voters passed Proposal 2 in 2006, which prevented colleges in the state from using race. Michigan was one of nine states prevented from using affirmative action until the Supreme Court’s ruling took it away two weeks ago. 

Kenneth Harris, president of The National Business League (founded by Booker T. Washington in 1900), said the court’s latest ruling will have detrimental consequences. 

“Banning affirmative action strikes at the very heart of Black business and economic empowerment and the DEI movement in corporate America,” Harris said. “It denies Black people the opportunity to level the playing field, to dismantle the barriers that have hindered Black enterprise progress after 400 years of economic oppression. When we deny access to affirmative action, we deny the brilliance, the talent, and the limitless economic potential that lies within our communities.” 

Dr. Kenneth Harris is the 16th president and CEO of The National Business League

Colleges like U-M have been left to forge new paths as they work to have a diverse student body. 

“Over the years, we have developed a suite of approaches, including holistic admission and multiple financial and pathway programs (such as Wolverine Pathways, Kessler Scholars and Go Blue Guarantee) that have enabled us to continue to enroll a diverse student body,” U-M President Santa Ono told me. 

A magnet for the rich, famous

As if I needed more confirmation just how popular U-M is, I was reading a recent Vanity Fair article about Gisele Bündchen, supermodel and former wife of quarterback Tom Brady, who mentioned how Brady’s son, Jack, a high school student who also plays football, hopes to attend U-M like his famous dad. 

The offspring of other well-known folks have also gravitated to the Ann Arbor campus, including those of Michelle and Barack Obama, Madonna, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, actress Lynda Carter and talk show host Kelly Ripa, as well as baseball legend Hank Aaron’s granddaughter. 

U-M received over 80,000 applications for its incoming freshman class of just over 6,000 spots in 2022. Spencer went on to explain the process they adopted. 

“We have used essays (applicants write) as one way to help whittle it down,” as admission leaders work with former educators and other professionals to help with reading the applications as they determine qualified candidates with an eye on diversity. 

It isn’t easy. And it’s far from perfect as there are many students of all colors and backgrounds left disappointed each year when they don’t make the cut. 

Contributions of regional public universities

Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, a lifelong champion of civil rights, as was her late father and mother, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., had an interesting take on this topic. 

Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz

“Although we are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision because we believe it will have an adverse impact on some of our public flagship and private universities, we also believe it is important to recognize the increasingly important contributions that regional public universities must make to the education of America’s students and their contributions to their local communities and economies,” she said. “More than 70% of America’s college students are educated at regional public universities — including Oakland.” 

Oakland University has never used quotas or race as factors in its admission, she said. Then again, the numbers of applicants they receive aren’t as lopsided as U-M or Michigan State. 

“Of the 16,000 students we admitted in 2022, 36% were first-generation students; 26% of students (were) from underrepresented minority backgrounds (African American, Hispanic, and Native Americans) of which 16% were African American students,” she said.

And that’s progress. 

Contact Carol Cain: 248-355-7126 or clcain@cbs.com. She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 8 a.m. Sundays on CBS Detroit. See Deloitte’s Carey Oven, Leslie Murphy, Inforum’s Terry Barclay and Carla Bailo on this Sunday’s show. 

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