Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said increasing diversity on college campuses is key to diversifying society at large.

"And why is diversity important? ... For me, the answer is quite simple: It's because until we reach that equality in education, we can't reach equality in the larger society," she said. "It starts here and it ends here."

Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor talks with students at the University of Michigan on Jan. 30, 2017, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Sotomayor is the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court and daughter of Puerto Rican-born parents. She was at the University of Michigan to receive an honorary degree and participated in a forum when she was asked what a university needs to look like to be inclusive and innovative.

The U.S. is "making large improvements toward" an equal society, Sotomayor said, but "we're still far from it."

"When you look at the number of African-Americans at the University of Michigan ? um, there's a real problem," she said.

Michigan voters in 2006 said race couldn't be used as a factor in admissions at public universities. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled and upheld that vote that constitutional amendment was legal. The case was called Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

Justice Sotomayor vigorously dissented that Michigan's ban on including race in college admissions should be legal.

A university spokeswoman, Kim Broekhuizen, said getting more black students is "imperative" to making the campus more diverse and inclusive. She said the ban on using race as a factor in admissions is a hurdle.

The percentage of black undergraduate students at the University of Michigan has held steady in recent years at less than 5 percent in a state with 14 percent black Americans. At the university, 5.5 percent are Hispanic and 65.4 percent are white.

By comparison, black Americans comprise about 12 percent of the American population; Hispanics 16 percent; and whites 72 percent of 308 million people.

"You need to figure out how you engage everyone in receiving that quality education," Justice Sotomayor said.

The university has responded to concerns that too few blacks are enrolled. In October, Robert Sellers was appointed as chief diversity officer as part of broader efforts to improve diversity. There's also an $85 million, five-year plan in a number of areas, including recruitment and outreach.

Ed White of the Associated Press reported this story.

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