The U.S. Department of Education has given the University an ultimatum: Make the Michigan Stadium seating bowl compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act or face cuts in federal education funding.
The threat was issued in a letter Friday from the department’s Office for Civil Rights notifying the University that the stadium is not in compliance with federal laws requiring it to meet accessibility standards for disabled patrons.
Education Department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said in a written statement that the letter told the University it needs to address the number and location of wheelchair-accessible seats and the routes wheelchair users have to maneuver around the stadium.
Compliance with the ADA would require the University to make 1 percent of all the seats in the Big House wheelchair-accessible, bringing the total to more than 1,000. There are currently only 90 wheelchair-accessible seats in the stadium.
The University has eight days left to reach a resolution with the Office for Civil Rights. Otherwise, the Department of Education will then decide if the matter will be handled in its administrative hearing process or will be passed on to the Department of Justice for enforcement through the federal courts.
The Education Department has been involved in the stadium dispute since a number of complaints have been filed about the Big House’s accessibility. It notified the University in November 2005 that it was concerned about the accessibility of Michigan Stadium.
“We believe that the number and location of wheelchair spaces the University contemplates adding are inadequate and will not meet compliance obligations,” the letter said.
The University hasn’t been forced to bring the stadium into compliance with ADA regulations because Michigan Stadium was built long before Congress passed the law in 1990. But the law requires that structures be brought up to code if they undergo a renovation.
While the complaint to the Department of Education argued that replacement of concrete that took place over the last decade constituted such a renovation, the University argued that it was a repair – which doesn’t trigger the requirements.
Richard Bernstein, the attorney for the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, a group suing the University over the current round of renovations, said he now plans to file a request for the court to decide the case immediately, instead of waiting for the trial scheduled for next year.
“Now, there is no question of fact or law. The requisite, relevant government agency has already declared the University of Michigan in violation of federal law,” Bernstein said. “The entity saying it’s not (in accordance with the law) is the same entity that writes the regulations.”
In a written statement, University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said Michigan Stadium “is in full compliance” with the ADA, and that the University was “surprised and disappointed” that the Department of Education decided to give the ultimatum.
Cunningham said the Education Department’s statement “not only contains misinformation, but also ignored the many measures (the University has) already taken – as well as those we are now undertaking – to enhance access to the Michigan Stadium.”
Cunningham didn’t know how much money the University gets from the Department of Education since it comes through a variety of programs. The University received $720.9 million from the federal government in the 2006-2007. Much of that money, though, came from research grants from federal departments other than education.
The ultimatum isn’t directly linked to the planned construction of luxury boxes, scheduled to begin after this year’s football season ends.
But it could mean the University has to choose between building the boxes and keeping Michigan Stadium the largest football venue in the country. If the University is forced to add more handicapped-accessible seating to make the stadium ADA-compliant, it would have to replace thousands of bleacher seats to make room for the wheelchair seats. Each accessible seat takes up the space of about 12 bleacher seats.
The construction of luxury boxes along the sides of the stadium would limit the University’s ability to add more bleacher seating. It could still be possible, though, to add more bleacher seats on to the stadium bowl at the ends. University officials have refused to comment on whether this option is feasible.
Cunningham refused to release the letter, citing attorney-client privilege.
The Department of Education’s letter adds another piece of opposition to the proposed renovations to the stadium.
Last week, the University’s faculty Senate Assembly voted to pass a resolution urging University President Mary Sue Coleman and the University Board of Regents “to reconsider the Stadium Renovation project.”
The resolution was prompted by Irwin Goldstein, an emeritus professor in the department of biological chemistry, who presented the committee with a petition signed by over 600 faculty and staff members objecting to the stadium project and what he said was a lack of consideration given to faculty and staff opinions.
Yesterday, Coleman met with the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, the Senate Assembly’s executive branch, to discuss the resolution. She maintained the position that the University has handled the stadium project in an appropriate manner and denied a request made by SACUA member Keith Riles, a physics professor, to discuss the renovation plans in an open forum.
“I firmly believe this project has gotten all the robust discussion it’s needed,” Coleman said.
She also said that the stadium project was “the most openly transparent project” she has worked on at the University and referred SACUA members to the University’s website on the stadium project for more information.
In a written statement after the meeting, Riles responded to Coleman’s argument. “President Coleman’s characterization of the stadium renovations project as the most open and transparent process of her career confirms that she is not listening carefully to the faculty,” he said.
– Daily News Editor Gabe Nelson contributed to this report.