With a potential turn in federal affirmative action policy on the horizon, the University and state of Michigan may once again be at the center of it all.
The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary has endorsed Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s request that the nation’s highest court review the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to overturn Proposal 2 — the state’s 2006 ban on affirmative action in admissions. The move comes as a surprise as the parties are on opposite sides of the issue.
George Washington, BAMN’s counsel of record, said the group has asked the court for a review in hopes that they might also strike down bans similar to Proposal 2 in states such as California, Arizona and Washington. The ultimate goal of the group is to establish a new national precedent in support of affirmative action.
After the Sixth Circuit Court first overturned Proposal 2 in an 8-7 decision last October, Schuette petitioned the Supreme Court in November in an attempt to reverse the lower court’s decision altogether.
If the U.S. Supreme Court decides not to take the case, the lower court’s ban on Proposal 2 will be upheld, and the University will be free to consider affirmative action — consideration that Washington said BAMN will demand.
If the court does take the case, Washington believes it will become “the most important civil rights case in the country, by really a long shot.”
University alum Kate Stenvig, a BAMN organizer, said the University once again has the opportunity to be a leader in setting a national standard for affirmative action.
“We know we can win (this case),” Stenvig said. “But it’s going to take building a student movement.”
Washington said Michigan’s constitutional amendment and California’s Proposition 209 have had “devastating consequences” on minority enrollment in each state’s public universities. From 2005 to 2012, the University saw a 42-percent decline in enrollment of underrepresented minorities in LSA and a 20-percent decline in the College of Engineering. During that same time frame, the School of Dentistry, the Law School and the Medical School have experienced 84-, 41- and 63-percent declines in minority enrollment, respectively.
University administrators say they are struggling to reverse the decline in minority enrollment. Without legal backing, the University’s admissions office is limited in its power to create a diverse student body.
“We look forward to the Court’s decision,” University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said in a statement. “In the meantime, the University continues to follow the strictures of Proposal 2.”
Washington isn’t optimistic that the University will take a “courageous” stance.
“When (Proposal 2) passed in 2006, Mary Sue Coleman made a defiant speech on the Diag saying they were going to fight it, and we don’t know exactly what happened, but somebody told her, you know, ‘shut up,’” Washington said. “And that’s kind of what they’ve done ever since.”
Complicating the matter is the impending ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, Austin, a Supreme Court case which could have sweeping implications for affirmative action policies across the nation. Although the Supreme Court could rule narrowly in the case and attempt to redefine affirmative action criteria, it could also use the case as an opportunity to overturn much of the precedent set in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, in which much of the University’s race-based admissions policies were upheld.
The Supreme Court has not announced a decision but the court’s ruling in Fisher v. Texas could impact whether or not they decide to take the new case from BAMN and the state.