What Lies Ahead for Michigan's Affirmative Action Cases?

By Lords, Erik | Black Issues in Higher Education, October 25, 2001 | Go to article overview

What Lies Ahead for Michigan's Affirmative Action Cases?


Lords, Erik, Black Issues in Higher Education


Many wonder what Bollinger's departure will mean for the battle to preserve the university's admissions policies

When University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger confirmed earlier this month that he will become Columbia University's next president, it triggered speculation about who will replace the popular leader here. Meanwhile, across the nation, it left many wondering what his departure will mean to the national battle to preserve affirmative action.

Questions abound because Bollinger is bolting at one of the most important crossroads in the school's history: Two lawsuits against Michigan for its affirmative action policies will be heard this month in Cincinnati by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The cases have been watched closely nationwide by public universities because most have used policies similar to Michigan's to achieve diversity for nearly two decades.

After arriving in Ann Arbor in 1997, from a provost post at Dartmouth College, Bollinger quickly catapulted to national prominence largely because of his ardent defense of Michigan's admissions policies. Crisscrossing the nation, he galvanized support from higher education leaders and organizations, and drew backing from hundreds of corporate giants, which filed briefs on Michigan's behalf in the cases (see Black Issues, Nov. 9,2000).

Bollinger, a 1971 Columbia law school graduate, built Michigan's defense on the premise that diversity strengthens universities. Michigan argued that diversity benefits all students, and that affirmative action policies guarantee a diverse learning environment. That approach wasn't novel, but in past fights for affirmative action many universities relied on a defense based on remedying past discrimination. Also, Michigan spent more than $4 million defending the cases, and for the most comprehensive pro-affirmative action research ever assembled by a university.

His strategy worked. In December 2000, a U.S. District judge ruled in favor of the university's undergraduate admission policies, saying they were constitutional. In March, however, another district judge struck down the law school's affirmative-action policies (see Black Issues, April 12). The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is scheduled to hear both cases this month.

With the issue undecided and possibly headed to the Supreme Court, what impact will his move have?

"I don't think his move to Columbia will hurt (the national affirmative action battle) at all. He seemed to be attractive to Columbia because of his views on affirmative action," says Susan Low Bloch, a professor at the Georgetown University Law School. "I would like to think that whoever takes his place at Michigan will clearly stay committed to the fight for affirmative action."

Others concurred.

"We are grateful for the leadership Lee provided on the national level," says Carol Geary-- Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington. "I'm sure Michigan will remain committed to affirmative action."

Steve Grafton, executive director of the University of Michigan Alumni Association, says that based on dozens of calls and e-mail messages he has received from alumni in recent days, many want the university's next leader to be "Bollinger-esque."

"Most alumni support the affirmative action policies Bollinger stood for," Grafton says. …

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