Minority Students May Be Star Witnesses in U-Michigan Affirmative Action Lawsuit

By Lords, Erik | Black Issues in Higher Education, December 7, 2000 | Go to article overview

Minority Students May Be Star Witnesses in U-Michigan Affirmative Action Lawsuit


Lords, Erik, Black Issues in Higher Education


Landmark case could turn on their campus experiences

DETROIT

The 17 Black and Hispanic students who last year won the right to intervene in an affirmative action lawsuit against the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor soon could be star witnesses in the controversial case, rather than just the supporting cast.

After hearing the first arguments of the case last month in U.S. District Court here, Judge Patrick J. Duggan suggested that he might not have a trial to hear the university's argument, which defends its affirmative action policies by stressing the educational benefits of diversity. Instead Duggan might want a trial to hear the student intervenors' argument: that Michigan needs to preserve its affirmative action policies to remedy past and present discrimination on its campus. Regardless of his decision -- which had not come in at Black Issues press time -- the trial likely will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court and have national repercussion for all public universities.

The students were selected from a group of more than 80 prospective UM applicants based on their grade-point average and their involvement in extracurricular activities. The student intervenors are all Black high school or college students -- 12 girls and 5 boys -- who have grade point-averages of 3.0 or higher. Eleven are from Detroit, five are from Ann Arbor and one is from Adrian.

"I might not need affirmative action to get into Michigan, but I think this case is more important than just me or the students who are applying now," says Niyah Carmichael, a senior at Renaissance High School who has a 3.8 GPA. "It's for my little brother or sister and people who will want to go there in the future." Carmichael is applying to Howard, Michigan and Spelman.

The 37,000-student university faces two lawsuits filed in 1997 over its use of race and ethnicity in considering whom to admit. Last month's heating involved the suit filed by two White students over the undergraduate school's admissions policies. The other suit, scheduled to go to trial next month, involves the law school's admissions criteria.

About 40 demonstrators in favor of the admissions policies, some carrying hand-lettered signs, chanted and marched peaceably outside the federal courthouse before the hearing. The group included students from Michigan's Ann Arbor and Flint campuses, Michigan State University and Detroit-area high schools, organizer Shanta Driver says.

"These cases ... will determine the fate of affirmative action not only in Michigan but in every school in the nation," Driver says. "If the affirmative action programs are struck down at the University of Michigan, then similar plans at other schools will be in jeopardy."

The high-profile case has piqued the interest of some of the nation's largest civil rights groups and skilled attorneys. Representing the intervenors are a group of parents, students, local lawyers and civil rights groups: the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Godfrey Dillard, a Detroit lawyer representing the minority students, says that egos and self interests have been tossed to the side because all of the 11 attorneys involved know that the stakes are too high to waste time squabbling.

"We've worked very well together because we know we've got a monumental task," Dillard says.

The group of lawyers from the various organizations grew out of a conversation Dillard had with his friend and mentor Milton Henry while the two were having lunch shortly after the lawsuit against Michigan was filed in 1997.

"We just started talking about the case and what it could mean to minority students," Dillard says. "We never thought that it would grow to where we were working with the national groups."

From there, the two decided they would work pro bono on the case and started networking with and reaching out to Black churches, parents and school administrators who could . …

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