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Affirmative Action and Reaction in Michigan | The Nation

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Affirmative Action and Reaction in Michigan

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Ryan Werder

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Election Day defeat of affirmative action in Michigan was only the first round of the political and legal fight over affirmative action in higher education. Just one day after 58 percent of Michigan voters chose to ban affirmative action, the University of Michigan administration responded with words of defiance.

Initially, the most outspoken defender of affirmative action was University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman. Addressing the crowd of thousands gathered on U-M's large brick plaza on Nov. 8, Coleman spoke with a passion previously suppressed by the University's obligation to political neutrality. "[W]e will not be deterred in the all-important work of creating a diverse, welcoming campus," Coleman emphasized. She then went further: "[U-M] will find ways to overcome the handcuffs that Proposal 2 attempts to place on our reach for greater diversity."

Her speech provoked national outrage. Conservative Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman said that Coleman's speech "exudes contempt" for the will of the Michigan voters. Thomas Bray of the right-wing New York Sun called it "breathtakingly arrogant." Back in Ann Arbor, the conservative biweekly Michigan Review's editor-in-chief lamented the dissolution of his faith in the university's administration while derisively labeling the thousands gathered to witness Coleman's rallying call as a "diversity cult."

But, despite the rekindled hope of the "cultists," little action was seen for weeks after Coleman's speech. The only legal maneuvering, despite assurances that the University legal team was considering multiple possibilities, was conducted by the radical pro-affirmative action group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). BAMN filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Michigan State University, as well as Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (who opposed Proposal 2, but is legally bound to implement it.) The suit claimed that Prop 2 violated the Fourteenth Amendment (often referred to as the "equal protection clause") and the Civil Rights Act.

On November 21, with affirmative action proponents losing patience over the lack of follow-through on Coleman's speech, the entire U-M community received an email from President Coleman and Provost Teresa Sullivan. The email hailed the creation of a "university-wide task force" dubbed Diversity Blueprints which would work to find creative solutions to maintaining diversity on campus in the face of Proposal 2. The administration encouraged students to send any and all ideas to a newly created email address. The task force membership, announced one month later, includes an eclectic mix of current students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Suggestions, even by non-Blueprint members, are still being accepted through the group's email account. The recommendations of the Diversity Blueprints task force will be presented to Coleman by Feb. 15.

Ever since Prop 2 passed the University has made clear that their immediate--and most achievable--legal ambition was to receive an injunction against the affirmative action ban until this year's admission cycle is completed. Doing so would ensure a uniform standard for all applicants rather than a double standard beginning with the enactment of Proposal 2 on Dec. 23, 2006. (The University of Michigan has rolling admissions, so much of the freshman class has already been admitted.)

That slight hope was realized on Dec. 19 when a federal district court granted the stay the University sought. Unfortunately for the elated affirmative action defenders, the victory was to be short-lived. Only ten days later, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the earlier ruling. Since this effectively ended the University's chances of a uniform policy throughout the admissions cycle--a result acknowledged as less than ideal by even strong Proposal 2 advocate Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox --the University halted admissions decisions until Jan. 10 to weigh their options. Since then, Michigan has been forced to reopen its admissions office and consider applicants under an imposed second standard.

The current mood on campus among activists is still defiant, though the Sixth Circuit roadblock is a difficult setback. Even more discouraging was the Jan. 19 decision by the United States Supreme Court not to even hear the appeal. Some students are responding by getting even more creative than the traditional grassroots organizing. A group of students going by the acronym AHEAD (Achieving Higher Education Access and Diversity) is lobbying on the federal level for affirmative action protections. They will be visiting a number of congressional offices during the first weekend in February.

Regardless of the seemingly legal dead end, the fight for the continuation of affirmative action in Michigan higher education appears likely to continue. Currently, another law suit is making its way through state courts, Gov. Granholm is preparing a commissioned report on the likely impact of Proposal 2, Diversity Blueprints is brainstorming new strategies, and the many dedicated students are refusing to give up.

The saga of post-Proposal 2 Michigan is poised to play on well into the future. For those fighting for the preservation of diversity in Michigan's public universities, though, the coming months will still certainly be trying ones.

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