Ever since the day after Proposal 2’s passage, the University has made clear that it would try to get the ban on affirmative action delayed in court so that it could judge all of this year’s applicants under the same rules.

But up to this point, there has been a widespread public perception – warranted or not – that the University would likely sue to overturn Proposal 2, or at least try to wriggle its way out of complying.

Most legal commentators dismiss such legal strategies as quixotic, and University President Mary Sue Coleman has never said she intended to try them.

Her earlier public comments, though, did hint at it.

In a Diag speech just after the amendment’s passage, Coleman cried foul and threatened to let slip the University’s pack of lawyers to fight Proposal 2. That speech was widely noted, and in some circles criticized, for its defiant tone.

In many ways, the University’s strategy yesterday appeared to be designed to shield the administration from a major public backlash that could have resulted from a different approach.

By filing the request to delay Proposal 2 as a motion in a lawsuit in which it was a defendant, the University avoided having to spend money outside its legal defense insurance. That neutralized the charge – now nearly a cliche on the op-ed pages of the state’s newspapers – that Coleman intended to spend the taxpayers’ dollars to fight a constitutional amendment that they overwhelmingly approved.

By acting in concert with Michigan State University and Wayne State University, the University of Michigan ducked the perception that it would be fighting this legal battle on its own. That could have been a problem, given its haughty reputation among many state conservatives and much of the state Legislature.

Perhaps most important, the University could convincingly argue that this legal challenge was only to avoid a short-term logistical nightmare – and that it had nothing to do with preventing a permanent ban on affirmative action.

In public statements, University officials and their supporters yesterday hammered home the point that it would be unfair to change the rules on admissions and financial aid in the middle of the cycle.

The message of the day was clearly that a sudden change in policy would be too disruptive, and that the University would figure out how to comply with Proposal 2 after this year’s admissions and financial aid cycle.

“Anyone who takes just 30 seconds to consider the equity of this is going to realize that the University is doing the only thing that is wise and fair,” said Bruce Courtade, a Republican lawyer who has often argued publicly on behalf of affirmative action supporters.

That line of argument appeared to resonate with some opponents of affirmative action.

State Rep. Bill Caul, the vice chair of the state House higher education appropriations subcommittee, said it would be inappropriate for the University to bring a lawsuit to fight Proposal 2, but that asking for temporary relief might be reasonable.

But Caul, a Mount Pleasant Republican, warned that taking too defiant a stand could hurt the universities’ pocketbooks. Because the voters supported Proposal 2, he said, being seen as fighting it would risk alienating voters. And since voters elect the legislators who dole out state tax dollars, he further argued, the schools should take care to avoid that.

“They need to make the case that they’re working toward complying with the law,” he said.

Though anti-affirmative action diehards have criticized the universities for failing to have new policies ready to go, the mainstream appears mostly untroubled. The conservative Detroit News issued an online staff editorial supporting a delay only hours after the request was announced.


Coleman’s rhetoric yesterday was also noticeably more moderate than in the speech she gave on the Diag the day after Proposal 2 passed.

In that speech, Coleman called California’s 1996 ban on affirmative action a “horribly failed experiment” that “we cannot, and will not, allow to take seed” at the University. She then said the University was considering every legal option and questioned whether Proposal 2 itself was lawful.

Voters, one might argue, could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that the president intended to try overturning Proposal 2.

Yesterday, though, Coleman continued a more recent trend of toning down her language. As she has in recent weeks, Coleman stressed that she was seeking to find new ways to retain a diverse student body without using race and gender preferences.

Gone was the bluster about overcoming the “handcuffs that Proposal 2 attempts to place on us.” Coleman said yesterday that the University would “obey the law” and comply with the amendment.

Although Coleman sounded more conciliatory than ever toward opponents of affirmative action, she still seemed careful to retain her credibility with liberals who support it. In a written release, the president said the University would “recognize” – not “respect” – the voters’ decision.

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