Law & Courts

In Michigan, Ban on Affirmative Action Prompts Lawsuit

By Sean Cavanagh — November 14, 2006 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Just days after Michigan voters approved a ballot measure to bar “preferential treatment” for women and minorities in university admissions and state programs, a coalition of civil rights and labor advocates and students launched a court challenge seeking to prevent it from taking effect.

The lawsuit, filed last week in federal court in Detroit, came shortly after Proposal 2 cruised to passage on Nov. 7, with 58 percent of voters supporting it.

The measure amends the state’s constitution to bar affirmative action in state programs, making Michigan the third state, after California and Washington, to approve such a proposal.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include By Any Means Necessary, a Detroit organization that supports affirmative action, and several black high school students from Michigan who say their chances of university admission could be hurt by the policy. It also is backed by several labor unions, who say their members will also suffer as a result of the change.

The ballot measure’s passage was viewed as a major setback by officials at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, whose president, Mary Sue Coleman, also vowed last week that her school was prepared to defend its admissions practices in court. Three years ago, her university revamped its policies to comply with a pair of 2003 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Michigan’s consideration of race as one factor in admissions decisions but rejected policies that awarded bonus points to “underrepresented” minority-group members.

“Diversity makes us strong,” Ms. Coleman said in a Nov. 8 speech on her school’s campus, one day after Proposal 2 passed. “It is too critical to our mission, too critical to our excellence, and too critical to our future to simply abandon.”

Familiar Backers

The ballot measure was championed by a familiar player in the battle over racial preferences: Jennifer Gratz, who sued the University of Michigan in 1997 after being denied undergraduate admission. That case, along with a second legal dispute centered on the university’s law school admissions, went to the Supreme Court and formed the basis of its landmark rulings.

Ms. Gratz, who is white, is now the executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, an organization that supported the ballot initiative. The organization was assisted by Ward Connerly, a former member of the University of California board of regents who successfully fought against affirmative action policies in California and Washington.

While Proposal 2 would apply to all 15 of Michigan’s state universities, it is regarded as having the greatest impact at the flagship institution, where admissions are competitive, and efforts to increase diversity have stirred controversy.

Critics of Michigan’s Proposal 2 point to the experience of the prestigious University of California system since that state’s passage of Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences in admissions. Undergraduate freshman enrollment in the UC system, which has nine undergraduate campuses, fell for blacks and Hispanics—considered to be underrepresented in the system—after UC adjusted its admissions policy in 1997 to comply with the ban. It remains near or below the levels before the policy took effect.

However, black and Hispanic freshman enrollment at UC’s two most competitive campuses, in Berkeley and Los Angeles, remains well below pre-Proposition 209 levels. By contrast, enrollment among whites and Asian-Americans has risen at those two campuses since then.

Observers say it is unclear what effect Michigan’s measure will have on programs outside of university campuses, such as K-12 single-sex and minority-recruitment programs. A law allowing single-sex education programs took effect this year in Michigan. But that law requires that schools balance those classes and efforts with program serving the opposite gender, as well as co-ed programs.

That policy could help them withstand legal scrutiny under Proposal 2, said Jill N. Roof, a research associate for the Citizen’s Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan organization that studied the initiative.

State-funded programs that seek to spark female and minority students’ interest in mathematics, science, and engineering face similar legal questions. Ms. Roof speculated that programs with relatively restrictive gender and racial policies could be forced to adjust. “If there are programs that completely exclude boys, they may be invalidated,” she said.

At the University of Michigan, officials believed they had already adopted policies to bring more race-neutrality to admissions. Prior to the high court’s 2003 ruling, Michigan used a system that assigned points to undergraduate applicants based on factors such as grade point average, socioeconomic background, and race.

After the rulings, the university changed its policy to place a heavier emphasis on readings of individual student applications, aimed at considering race in a less-regimented way.

The university uses outreach programs that target K-12 minority students for recruitment, as well as scholarship programs. Ms. Coleman said last week her school would defend those policies.

Roger Clegg, the president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a think tank in Sterling, Va., that opposes race-based admissions policies, did not think the ballot measure would directly influence the policies of universities outside Michigan, except to convince their leaders that the public opposes race-based programs. “As more leading universities end the use of racial and ethnic preferences,” he said, “it becomes harder for the remaining schools to argue that those preferences are essential.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as In Michigan, Ban on Affirmative Action Prompts Lawsuit


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Won't Take Up Cases Seen as Expanding Schools' Liability for Sexual Harassment
The court rejected appeals from a school district and university about when educational institutions may be sued for sexual harassment.
4 min read
Thunder storm sky over the United States Supreme Court building in Washington DC.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts Georgia Educators Plan to Sue Over the State's 'Divisive Concepts' Law
Georgia's could be the sixth lawsuit to challenge state laws limiting classroom discussion of race and racism.
3 min read
Image of a pending lawsuit.
Law & Courts As a Skeptical Supreme Court Weighs Race in College Admissions, 'Brown' Looms Large
The cases heard Monday involve Harvard and the University of North Carolina, but a decision could be felt in K-12 education.
8 min read
Members of the NAACP Youth and College division rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices heard oral arguments on two cases on whether colleges and universities can continue to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions Oct. 31, 2022.
Members of the NAACP Youth and College division rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear oral arguments on whether colleges and universities can continue to consider race as a factor in admissions.
Francis Chung/E&E News/POLITICO via AP Images
Law & Courts 4 Things to Know About the Affirmative Action Showdown Before the Supreme Court
The justices on Monday weigh the use of race in admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, with K-12 implications.
9 min read
supreme court SOC