What Lies Ahead for Michigan’s Affirmative Action Cases?
Many wonder what Bollinger’s departure will mean for the battle to preserve
the university’s admissions policies
By Erik Lords
ANN ARBOR, Mich.
When University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger confirmed earlier this month that he will become Columbia University’s next president, it triggered speculation about who will replace the popular leader here. Meanwhile, across the nation, it left many wondering what his departure will mean to the national battle to preserve affirmative action.
Questions abound because Bollinger is bolting at one of the most important crossroads in the school’s history: Two lawsuits against Michigan for its affirmative action policies will be heard this month in Cincinnati by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The cases have been watched closely nationwide by public universities because most have used policies similar to Michigan’s to achieve diversity for nearly two decades.
After arriving in Ann Arbor in 1997, from a provost post at Dartmouth College, Bollinger quickly catapulted to national prominence largely because of his ardent defense of Michigan’s admissions policies. Crisscrossing the nation, he galvanized support from higher education leaders and organizations, and drew backing from hundreds of corporate giants, which filed briefs on Michigan’s behalf in the cases (see Black Issues, Nov. 9, 2000).
Bollinger, a 1971 Columbia law school graduate, built Michigan’s defense on the premise that diversity strengthens universities. Michigan argued that diversity benefits all students, and that affirmative action policies guarantee a diverse learning environment. That approach wasn’t novel, but in past fights for affirmative action many universities relied on a defense based on remedying past discrimination. Also, Michigan spent more than $4 million defending the cases, and for the most comprehensive pro-affirmative action research ever assembled by a university.
His strategy worked. In December 2000, a U.S. District judge ruled in favor of the university’s undergraduate admission policies, saying they were constitutional. In March, however, another district judge struck down the law school’s affirmative-action policies (see Black Issues, April 12). The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is scheduled to hear both cases this month.
With the issue undecided and possibly headed to the Supreme Court, what impact will his move have?
“I don’t think his move to Columbia will hurt (the national affirmative action battle) at all. He seemed to be attractive to Columbia because of his views on affirmative action,” says Susan Low Bloch, a professor at the Georgetown University Law School. “I would like to think that whoever takes his place at Michigan will clearly stay committed to the fight for affirmative action.”
“We are grateful for the leadership Lee provided on the national level,” says Carol Geary-Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington. “I’m sure Michigan will remain committed to affirmative action.”
Steve Grafton, executive director of the University of Michigan Alumni Association, says that based on dozens of calls and e-mail messages he has received from alumni in recent days, many want the university’s next leader to be “Bollinger-esque.”
“Most alumni support the affirmative action policies Bollinger stood for,” Grafton says. “The things Lee Bollinger has done are the things alumni want to see continued.”
Many students in Ann Arbor share that view.
“I think it’s nice to know that we have a top-quality president working for our school that Ivy League universities want,” says Edgar Zapata, a junior political science major from California who also serves as a representative on the Michigan Student Assembly. “But the downside is that he’s leaving unfinished business that would be discouraging for all of the students who are fighting for affirmative action.”
Others were not so sure of Bollinger’s impact on the affirmative action debate.
“Nearly all of higher education has lined up lockstep in support of affirmative action, but I hadn’t attributed that to the assiduousness of one man,” says Duke University professor William Van Alstyne. “It was the level of detail with which Michigan prepared its case that was notable.”
Who Will Be Next?
Several names have surfaced as possible Bollinger replacements including Joe White, former dean of the Michigan business school, who is now a vice president for academic affairs there, and Edie Goldenberg, former dean of the College of Literature, Arts and Sciences. Goldenberg, now a political science professor at U-M, was one of five finalists when Bollinger was hired, but she withdrew upon learning that the names would be made public.
Some also mentioned U-M professor Francis Collins, a physician-geneticist who is on leave as director of the National Human Genome research project at the National Institutes of Health.
An obvious suggestion by many was Dr. Nancy Cantor, a former U-M provost who left Michigan in April to become chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
For Cantor to leave after such a short stay would be “unusual, but not totally unprecedented,” says Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education in Washington. “People would understand coming home.”
Cantor did not immediately return calls seeking comment. She and the University of Iowa’s Mary Sue Coleman are the only females to lead Big Ten universities. Michigan has never had a female president.
Bollinger had an offer on the table from Michigan that would have earned him nearly $1 million a year when he was offered the presidency of Columbia, according to Michigan officials. The 5-year, multimillion-dollar deal would have made him one of the highest paid college presidents in the country.
But Bollinger had been talking to officials at Columbia since June, only a month after stating that he planned to stay at Michigan for many years. His spring candidacy for the Harvard University presidency prompted Michigan regents to create a package they thought would give Bollinger, who made $326,000 a year at Michigan, no need to look elsewhere. The proposed package would have included funds from private donors to supplement his salary, but ultimately it was a life change, rather than money that compelled Bollinger to leave, he says.
He said Columbia sought him out as a candidate during the summer, causing him and his wife, Jean, to consider “our long-term futures.”
“It was very difficult for Jean and me,” Bollinger says. “I have a deep love for (Michigan). I am proud of what this institution has accomplished.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com