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Expert Panels Lay Out Legal Framework for Michigan Case

Expert Panels Lay Out Legal Framework for Michigan Case


A panel of legal scholars and social science experts that have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of maintaining the University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs laid out the legal framework for allowing the continuation of race-conscious programs to reporters at a press briefing in Washington late last month.

Christopher Edley of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, and a professor at Harvard Law School, said the Court will consider whether Michigan’s stated purpose of promoting diversity serves a compelling government interest and if it is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. To be narrowly tailored, he said, it must not be a rigid quota, must consider race as one of several factors, must be reviewed from time to time and must be shown to be the least-burdensome way to achieve the compelling government interest.

Edley explained that the purpose of amicus curiae briefs to the court, like the one filed by the Civil Rights Project, is to lay out the social science evidence supporting its position.

Dr. Patricia Gurin, emerita psychology professor at the University of Michigan, summarized several research studies which show that introducing diversity into the undergraduate student body has several important positive outcomes, while not increasing hostility between ethnic groups. Diversity, however, will not exist on campus unless programs foster it, she said.

“Ethnic and racial diversity is not like a virus,” Gurin said. “You don’t catch it just by being present on campus.”

Studies have found that White students who were randomly housed with minority roommates are more comfortable around minorities, have more minority friends after four years and have more minority co-workers in the future, she said. Also, diverse classrooms have been shown to increase non-minority students’ self-reported critical thinking and their motivation to consider multiple perspectives in a discussion, Gurin added.

Angelo Ancheta, also of Harvard Law School and the Civil Rights Project, said the Michigan case’s impact goes far beyond public higher education, directly affecting K-12 education, hiring practices and government contracting law among many other areas.

The Bush administration has “punted” in arguing that the University of Michigan plans are flawed, Ancheta added. In its brief to the court, the administration conceded that the Michigan plans serve a “compelling interest.” But, it argued, a Texas plan that accepts the top 10 percent of students is a better way to achieve the same goals.

The University of Michigan case is extremely complex, Ancheta concluded, and many court observers believe Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy hold the key to the court’s decision.

Late last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) also held a background briefing in Washington, D.C., for members of the news media on the Gratz v. Bollinger case, which represents the undergraduate portion of the University of Michigan affirmative action case pending.

Initially, the LDF had represented 17 African-American and Latino student-intervenors in the Gratz v. Bollinger case. However, the Court declined to hear arguments on behalf of the students. Theodore Shaw, associate director and counsel for LDF, and Godfrey Dillard, a Michigan attorney who helped represent the minority student-intervenors, presided over the briefing.

— By Ben Hammer Ronald Roach also contributed to this report

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