From recruiting public support of national figures to personally testifying, Lee Bollinger has played an active role in the University”s defense of its affirmative action admissions policies.
Just months after Bollinger was selected as president in 1996, the University was challenged with two lawsuits against the race-sensitive admissions policies of the University”s Law School and College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
Bollinger, who has served both as a professor and dean of the University”s Law School and who has shown his dedication to affirmative action policies, immediately became a vocal supporter of the University”s admissions policies, and, in the four years since the initiation of the lawsuits, has seen both cases through the district court level.
“We could not have a better policy more consistent with Bakke,” Bollinger said, referring to the 1978 Supreme Court case earlier this year, Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, which allowed the use of race as a “plus factor” in public institutions.
Standing behind that philosophy, Bollinger selected an esteemed Washington-based law firm, Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, to build a case for the University.
He also actively recruited national statements of support from University alum. former President Gerald Ford, former Michigan Gov. William Millikin and General Motors.
Bollinger said the efforts were to demonstrate the greater effects of affirmative action in higher education.
The University declared the district court decision in the LSA case a victory. Judge Patrick Duggan ruled last December that the use of race as one of many factors in college and university admissions was a compelling state interest, though he struck down the admissions system that was in place when the lawsuit was filed.
But the University”s defense of its race-sensitive admissions policies did not stand up to Judge Bernard Friedman”s decision in the case challenging the Law School. Friedman in March ruled that race could not be considered as a factor for admissions in higher education.
Both cases are scheduled to be heard on appeal in the 6th Circuit Court in Cincinnati later this month. It has been speculated that the cases could ultimately wind up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bollinger said the decisions are important to many facets of society.
“Every selective university in the United States is committed to this, but this is not just an issue of higher education,” Bollinger said. “These statements showed it was important on many different levels.”
His support became a part of the court record when Bollinger testified in the Law School trial in late January. He spoke to the court from the perspective of his former position as dean of the University”s Law School.
University Law and sociology Prof. Richard Lempert, who also testified in the Law School trial, said Bollinger was key in creating a significant defense.
“On one level it was Lee”s commitment to the University to build a defense for both cases, and pushing the regents to go after it,” Lempert said. “Thanks to his leadership, I feel we presented the best defense of affirmative action policies of any other institution in the country.”
University Regent Larry Deitch (D-Bloomfield Hills) echoed Lempert”s sentiment.
“We at Michigan have made the best case in the merits of affirmative action,” Deitch said. Bollinger has “done a brilliant job in defending the admissions policies.”
Bollinger”s vocal support earned him national recognition from academic and legal leaders, but some noticed his tendency to speak out before the lawsuits even occurred.
“I believe strongly that presidents should speak out,” former University President James Duderstadt said soon after Bollinger was selected to succeed him. “That is what higher education needs right now. People of deep conviction and courage. Lee Bollinger has both of these.”
Despite the University”s strong defense, the campus wasn”t entirely behind Bollinger in support of the admissions policies. The anti-affirmative action student group Voice united student opponents of the policy.
RC philosophy Prof. Carl Cohen, an opponent of race-based admissions, said last semester that he was working to set up a debate with Bollinger over the admissions policies.
Other students questioned Bollinger”s commitment to an integrated campus when, despite the University”s legal support, different racial groups continue to self-segregate.
Bollinger has maintained his position.
“Nobody believes this institution has done everything it can to take advantage of diversity, but we”re trying,” Bollinger told students concerned about self-segregation at a fireside chat in fall 2000. “The will is there.”
Although the next president will come into the continuing appeals process in both lawsuits, Lempert said he did not think the University”s defense will lose its focus.
“So long as the regents and the University remain committed, I don”t think a new leader will have any effect,” Lempert said.