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Federal Appeals Court Upholds
Affirmative Action in Michigan Law School Case

by Graciela Elizabeth Geyer,
U.S. Students Association
Washington, D.C.

In a 5-4 decision the sixth circuit court of appeals ruled Tuesday that the University of Michigan Law school was justified in using a race-conscious admissions policy for the educational benefits of diversity. The court found that the university had proven that they would not be able to ensure significant enrollment of underrepresented students of color without the consideration of race. The case is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

“We celebrate this as a victory on affirmative action. This case is critical not just because of the impact it will have on diversity in higher education, but for the effect it will have on equal access and opportunity for students of color,” said Jo’ie Taylor, Vice President of the United States Student Association, a national organization of college and university student governments. “We hope this will encourage administrators to support affirmative action and fend off those within universities who wish to weaken or dismantle equal opportunity programs for fear of lawsuits,” said Taylor.

While the number of college age people of color grows, policies that have given them access to college are increasingly under attack. Anti-affirmative action lawsuits like in Texas, Michigan, and Georgia have caused universities across the country to cut affirmative action programs and policies preemptively, just when they are needed most.

The University of Michigan argues their policies were created for the benefit of diversity in education, despite evidence they were created in response to student and community pressure for racial justice at the University of Michigan. Legal experts say no university would admit to racial discrimination, no matter how egregious, because it would open them to legal liability. The result is these lawsuits deal primarily with diversity as a compelling interest for the quality of education, not with the responsibility of universities to ensure equal opportunity.

“Race must be a factor in admissions because race is a factor in educational opportunity,” says Liz Geyer, USSA Campus Diversity Project Director, “Universities with a serious commitment to equal opportunity must put substantial resources toward recruiting and retaining underrepresented students.”

Under affirmative action, universities can target underrepresented students of color in recruitment and retention efforts, as well as in admissions.

Affirmative action policies have proven to ensure fairness and non-discrimination. Since 1986 affirmative action has helped increase the number of students of color in higher education by over 60%. While this is a good step in the right direction, students say there is still much work to do ensure equal opportunity for students of color.

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Published in In Motion Magazine May 21, 2001.

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