It isn’t fun to root for the federal government against the University of Michigan. There has to be something patently wrong and unfair with the world for a situation to arise where such a thing would even be conceivable – and there is. The University continues to discriminate against handicapped fans at Michigan Stadium and expects its many critics to simply shut up about it. The U.S. Justice Department must do all it can to force the University’s hand and ensure proper accommodation at the Big House for all people.
The controversy surrounding the University’s renovations of Michigan Stadium is by now well known. The University Board of Regents approved earlier this year a renovation plan that would add luxury boxes to the stadium. Fans have expressed outrage at the proposal, but while the luxury boxes are controversial, providing proper accommodation at the Big House for fans in wheelchairs is not up for debate: It absolutely must be done. Yes, there are laws mandating that disabled people be properly accommodated, but the University should not need such laws to do what is right.
Confoundingly, the University has repeatedly refused to do all it can to accommodate fans in wheelchairs. It refused to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 – which requires one percent of seats to be handicap-accessible – through a delusional game of semantics that pegs significant changes to the bowl of the stadium as “repairs” rather than “renovations.” The ADA calls for more than 1,000 wheelchair-accessible seats at the stadium: There are currently only about 90, and even after the University’s latest round of concessions under pressure from the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and the federal government, the luxury box plan would only add about 500 more accessible seats.
Beyond that, the U.S. Department of Education released last month a list of largely unaddressed grievances filed by fans at the Big House. The Department of Education has repeatedly asked for thorough information on the changes to the stadium that the University routinely makes in the off-season, yet the University has been largely unresponsive. Only under threat of a revocation of federal research grants last month did the University finally take the Education Department seriously. Even then, it responded with only a half-hearted, abstract letter that may as well have been an automated response.
Despite this brash noncompliance and outright discrimination, University President Mary Sue Coleman and her spokespeople are still trying to minimize and brush aside this situation as a misunderstanding. We repeatedly hear them say that the stadium is fully accessible for fans in wheelchairs: Is that to say that the fans whose complaints are cited by the Education Department are liars? What about those fans who constantly write to this and other publications expressing concern over the lack of accessibility at the stadium? Are they all just part of a crazy conspiracy? Or could it be that there are real problems that the University is ignoring?
Now, the Justice Department has joined the MPVA in its lawsuit against the University. With some firepower and some real consequences on the table, perhaps the University can finally be forced to do what is right. Regardless, the damage to the University’s reputation as an institution that values diversity, fairness and equality has already been done. That may be President Coleman’s most lasting legacy.