Same Team, Different Strategy: The Lawsuit Challenging Michigan's Affirmative Action Policies Has Produced a Wide Spectrum of Supporters Who Are Prepared to Defend the University's Pursuit of Diversity

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Same Team, Different Strategy: The Lawsuit Challenging Michigan's Affirmative Action Policies has Produced a Wide Spectrum of Supporters Who are Prepared to Defend the University's Pursuit of Diversity

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The University of Michigan prides itself on its commitment to maintaining a racially diverse campus. Indeed, here at the nation's 10th-largest university, nearly one in six students is a member of a minority group.

As one of the nation's most prestigious schools, public or private, Michigan has long used a once-common tool in admissions to achieve that desired mix of students: it uses race among other factors in its admissions process.

But a federal court challenge to race-conscious criteria by two unsuccessful White applicants and a Washington-based advocacy group has propelled Michigan's affirmative action policies into the midst of a national political and legal controversy.

And the school, while defending the need for affirmative action, finds itself in the unusual and uncomfortable position of facing suggestions from its own minority students and aspiring applicants that it has been insufficiently vigorous in that defense.

The case, like several others that have cropped up around the country in recent years, has drawn intense interest nationally because of clashing court rulings on affirmative action that have left colleges across the country with few clear answers.

Everyone, from admissions officers to top-level administrators and even student applicants themselves, has been on unsure footing because of still unresolved legal questions arising from cases in Texas, California and Georgia.

"Practically every selective university in the country consciously considers race and ethnicity in their admissions process," says Elizabeth Barry, the University of Michigan's associate vice president and deputy general counsel.

"The challenge to those practices threatens them all -- whether at public institutions or private institutions," she says. "A ruling that the Constitution does not permit race-conscious practices would threaten every college."

One of the university's best-known alumni has even weighed in on the matter. Former President Gerald Ford echoed Barry's concerns in a recent opinion column defending his alma mater that ran in The New York Times.

"So drastic a ban would scuttle Michigan's current system, one that takes into account nearly a dozen elements -- race, economic standing, geographic origin, athletic and artistic achievement among them -- to create the finest educational environment for all students," Ford wrote. "This eminently reasonable approach, as thoughtful as it is fair, has produced a student body with a significant minority component whose record of academic success is outstanding."

A Different Spin

But another reason the case here at the University of Michigan fascinates legal observers and worries both proponents and foes of affirmative action in college and university admissions is a recent appeals court ruling.

A host of civil rights lawyers for potential minority applicants to the university recently won the right to intervene in the case, siding with the university but taking a different tack in doing so.

While Michigan's fundamental defense is that race-conscious admissions practices achieve educational benefits of diversity, the intervenors claim it's also necessary to address the university's own past record.

"In its own interest, the university chose not to rely on any possible discriminatory transgressions it may have been involved in," says Detroit lawyer Godfrey Dillard, lead attorney for the intervenors.

"There was no choice but to interrogate the university's race relations history to guarantee that all arguments in favor of the use of race in college admissions get a full and fair hearing in court," he says.

"We need to present proof of present discrimination: the over-reliance on standardized tests, the favoritism of suburban high schools over urban schools and the legacy preference currently in place," Dillard says. …