The University responded yesterday to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education demanding changes to Michigan Stadium because of alleged violations of federal accessibility standards.
The University’s 26-page response challenges the department’s letter, denying most of the accusations made against the University and criticizing the department for “disparaging” the University and making “repeated false assertions.”
The exchange began Oct. 29 when the University acknowledged it received a letter from the Department of Education threatening to cut funding to the University if it didn’t make Michigan Stadium friendlier to disabled fans. The University had until yesterday to reply to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and show that it has addressed the problems laid out in the letter or has plans to fix them.
If the Department of Education doesn’t think the University’s response contains an “acceptable remedial plan” or demonstrates its compliance with the department’s requests, it could seek to cut its funding to the University or refer the case to the Department of Justice, which could sue the University.
Richard Bernstein – an attorney representing the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, a group suing the University over stadium accessibility – said last week he was planning to file a motion to ask the judge to immediately rule in the case based on the Department of Education’s findings. Bernstein said he plans to wait a few days to see if the Department of Justice intervenes.
“We have not filed the motion for summary disposition because we are waiting for what we believe to be an imminent filing of intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice,” Bernstein said.
At the center of the debate is the charge that the University is in violation of federal law because replacement of concrete in the seating bowl that took place over the last two decades could be considered “renovation” rather than “repairs,” which would force the University to adhere to a higher set of federal regulations. The University argued in its response that the concrete replacement was a repair and that it has adhered to all standards necessary in such a situation.
The response letter, signed by Interim General Counsel Gloria Hage, contested several other allegations contained in the Department of Education’s letter, including the accusation that the University has repeatedly ignored requests for information by OCR investigators.
In an interview last night, Hage refuted claims by the Office for Civil Rights that said the University denied investigators access to the stadium. She said the University gave OCR officials five unrestricted site visits, interviews with 20 staff members and “volumes” of pages of information related to the stadium.
“The Letter of Findings contains an irrefutably skewed and flawed depiction of the access that OCR has been granted to University documents, witnesses and facilities, as well as misrepresents the University’s position over the course of the past eight years as we have worked to resolve this matter,” Hage’s letter said.
University officials have questioned the Department of Education’s motivation for sending the letter while the school and the Office of Civil Rights are still in negotiations.
While University officials refused to comment on the details of the discussions, the Michigan Stadium expansion project scheduled to begin after this football season would fix some of the problems cited in the letter while expanding the number and variety of wheelchair-accessible seats in the stadium.
What the Department of Education wants on top of those changes and what drove the department to send the letter regardless remains unclear. Hage said she couldn’t speculate on why it chose to send the letter despite ongoing negotiations.
“What we’ve said to the OCR repeatedly is ‘Look, let’s get past talking about the legal regulations and figure out how to best continue to improve the accessibility of Michigan stadium,’ ” Hage said. “I’m still optimistic that we can keep talking and reach a resolution.”
Bernstein was less positive about the University’s chances.
“The hubris of this administration is destroying this institution,” he said.
– Gabe Nelson contributed to this report.