The University Record, June 5, 2000

Staff member concerns addressed at lawsuits session

By Jane R. Elgass

Staff members came prepared with questions about the admissions lawsuits filed against the University during two sessions on “The Affirmative Action Lawsuits: What Do They Mean for You and Your U-M Workplace” that were held during last month’s Workplace 2000 Conference.

Elizabeth Barry, associate vice president and deputy general counsel, updated those attending the workshops on the status of the lawsuits and reiterated that the University remains firmly committed to aggressively defending its practices, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

The University is being sued by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), a Washington, D.C., public interest law firm that has focused for the past seven years on dismantling affirmative action across the country. CIR maintains that the U-M’s use of race as one of many factors in admissions decisions is unconstitutional.

The University maintains that the use of race meets constitutional requirements set forth in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In its 1978 ruling on that case, the Supreme Court said that attaining the educational benefit of diversity is a compelling government interest justifying the use of race as a factor in admissions, as long as all students admitted are fully qualified and their admissions are not based on quotas.

In response to several comments on changes in process, pending the outcome of the lawsuits, Julie Peterson, director of News and Information Services, noted that the University is not operating any differently than it did prior to the lawsuits, which were filed in late 1997.

“What we are doing is legal,” Peterson emphasized, adding that, “our admissions process is working. Every student who comes here is qualified.”

Much of the University’s defense in the lawsuits is based on expert testimony gathered from a variety of sources, including psychology Prof. Patricia Gurin. That testimony shows that the benefits of attending a university that embraces diversity last beyond the college years, with those students being more likely to have diverse friends, live in integrated neighborhoods and work in integrated settings.

“This is important for faculty, for the University community, for Ann Arbor and for student success later in life,” Barry stated.

Most of the U-M’s in-state students come from segregated cities and schools, Barry noted, “and bringing them here together creates wonderful dynamics that result in phenomenal learning outcomes. When you are confronted with something new, it wakes you up intellectually, and you begin to question your assumptions.”

Two individuals attending the workshops indicated the University’s defense of its admissions processes was a factor in their partner accepting a job here.

Peterson noted that “a diverse environment benefits everyone, minorities and non-minorities alike, students, staff and faculty.”

Issues raised by workshop participants ranged from having correct information to share with incoming students and to respond to callers seeking information about the lawsuits, to whether race and gender can be taken into account when screening applicants for study-abroad programs, to concerns of corporate recruiters about diverse job candidate pools, to the impact of the student interveners’ participation in the lawsuits.

Barry noted that the intervention is welcomed by the University. “The voices of the students were missing from the case,” she noted. “When the argument was held in the Sixth Circuit, the courtroom was full of students. For the first time, you really got a feeling of what these cases are about. The students are a very powerful voice.”

Barry also countered the arguments that have been raised by some that admission of minority students denies opportunities to white students.

LS&A receives about 14,000 admissions applications, with around 1,100 of those from minority students. LS&A’s enrollment of underrepresented minority students stands at 13 percent.

“The numbers just don’t support the argument that minority students are denying opportunities to white students,” Barry said. Research has shown that nationwide race-blind admissions would improve white students’ odds of being admitted by only a small fraction, from 25 percent to 26.2 percent.

She also noted that the U-M is “very selective. Fifty percent of last fall’s LS&A class had 4.0s. We have the best of the best here. All students are qualified to do the work.”

The U-M has widespread support of its defense through “friend of the court” briefs filed by higher education institutions and organizations, business and industry leaders, the U.S. Department of Justice, the American Bar Association, the State of Ohio and the City of Ann Arbor.

Peterson, who daily fields questions about the lawsuits from the media as well as members of the University community, noted that some staff have said they feel others within the University have been using the lawsuits as an excuse to back off from diversity efforts. “Nothing has changed,” she emphasized. “The University is fighting aggressively. Diversity is at the heart of what we are about as a university.”

Both lawsuits will be heard in federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan. The pre-trial conference for the LS&A case is set for Sept. 13, with the case slated for trial in September or October before Judge Patrick Duggan. Final motions in the Law School case, which has a trial date of Jan. 15, are due Oct. 15. That case will be heard by Judge Bernard Friedman.

Barry noted that regardless of the decisions handed down by Duggan and Friedman, the cases will be appealed and the process could take several years.

Asked if a U-M victory in the cases means the issue won’t be raised again, Barry said that if a definitive ruling is issued by the Supreme Court, the decision probably won’t be challenged for a while. If there is only partial victory, challenges can be expected.

She did note, however, that “getting the Supreme Court to reaffirm its decision in Bakke—that diversity is a compelling interest—would be a very positive outcome.”

The Workplace 2000 workshops were facilitated by Deborah Orlowski, staff development associate in Human Resources/Affirmative Action.

For more information about the lawsuits, visit the Web at www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions/ or go to the gateway page, www.umich.edu, and scroll down the left column to “Information on admissions lawsuits.”

Members of the University community who would like to receive periodic updates about the status of the lawsuits can subscribe to an informational e-mail listserve on the topic by contacting Deborah Greene, Office of the Vice President for Communications, greenedm@umich.edu or (734) 763-4008.