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Day of Celebration in Michigan City at Center of Court Debate

Students at Ann Arbor university laud the Supreme Court's ruling upholding the law school's affirmative action policy.

June 24, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The confidence in her gait, the slight nodding of her head as she passed the University of Michigan student union suggested that Agnes Aleobua was having a very good day. She was, and she had much company Monday in this city at the center of the affirmative action debate.

In a split ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the university law school's affirmative action policy but struck down a point system used for undergraduate admissions.

But here, in one of just a handful of staunchly liberal college towns in the Midwest, many viewed the undergraduate ruling as an afterthought, a glitch to be fixed when the celebrating was over.

"This is a full, 100% victory, clear support of affirmative action," said Aleobua, a senior studying secondary education and one of 41 students named by the university in the defense of its policies. "The technicalities are just that. The school can fix the undergrad system, and they can use affirmative action to do it."

University President Mary Sue Coleman, who was in Washington, D.C., called the rulings "a tremendous victory for the University of Michigan, for all of higher education.... This is a resounding affirmation that will be heard across the land -- from our college classrooms to our corporate boardrooms."

Despite the summer break, hundreds of jubilant students and faculty members gathered at the university's main square after word of the decisions spread shortly after 9 a.m.

They chanted, waved placards, hugged and then dispersed, some to drink a celebratory microbrew at one of the many nearby watering holes. In the afternoon, they gathered again to celebrate.

Barbara Grutter, who filed the lawsuit against the law school, spent the day at her home in Plymouth Township, 30 miles away, eating crackers and trying to get the caller ID on her phone to work.

Grutter is 49 now, a wife and mother of two who still runs the health-care consulting business she built before being rejected by the university despite a high grade-point average and score on the Law School Admissions Test.

"This was hard for me to do; I'm a private person. But I thought it was morally and legally wrong what they were doing," Grutter said. "As a woman who entered the workforce in the '70s and faced discrimination then -- to find myself 25 or 30 years later discriminated against on another front was just startling. People know a quota when they see one. I'm very disappointed with the law school decision."

A city of 114,000 less than an hour west of Detroit, Ann Arbor has long been known for its quiet, leafy neighborhoods, its well-regarded university and Wolverine football team, and its left-leaning -- but polite -- politics.

Then, in October 1997, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights sued the university on behalf of Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, who claimed they were denied admission as undergraduates by a point system that favored less-qualified minorities.

Two months later, Grutter filed suit, with the help of the center, against the law school.

In a matter of months, Ann Arbor found itself in the decidedly unquiet eye of the nation's stormy debate over affirmative action.

The year before, California had passed Proposition 209, banning affirmative action in public institutions.

As the Michigan case made its way toward the Supreme Court, several other states similarly banned or limited affirmative action. A total of seven states have restricted the use of affirmative action.

Hamacher graduated from Michigan State University and Gratz from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Grutter was offered a scholarship to Wayne State University's law school. She decided not to go because it didn't offer the health-care-focused law program she sought at the University of Michigan.

On Monday, the three plaintiffs applauded the court's ruling that the undergraduate admissions process -- which gave African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans an automatic 20 points on a 150-point scale -- was unconstitutional. They all lamented the upholding of the law school's system.

Over the nearly six years of court battles, Ann Arbor -- almost as much as its university -- became a leader in the fight for affirmative action.

And few residents could be found Monday who were willing to publicly criticize the court's decisions.

"You want to see racism? That's racism," a convenience store owner, who declined to give his name, said of the court rulings.

"If you're out and about talking against affirmative action or the university, you'll definitely get funny looks," said Edward Renollet, 30, a supporter of affirmative action who graduated from the school with a degree in political science and now owns a coffee shop called Cafe Ambrosia.

Renollet's only complaint with the rulings: "The court was typically confusing. It just seems that neither side would say everything they wanted to say."

Even such minor quibbling was rare as General Motors officials, city leaders and students hailed the ruling.

"Racism is still a serious problem, and not just in universities," said Alden Givens, a 21-year-old philosophy major. "This is a start, but only a start."

Grutter, it seemed Monday, did not appear to have the support of many in the town where she once wanted to study law. But she was hopeful, and said she thought her lawsuit had at least moved the argument forward.

"There was a time when victims of this kind of discrimination had to be quiet, fearing they'd be termed racist. I think that has changed," she said. "Unfortunately, I think the court's decision is not only unconstitutional but also out of step with the American people, with our identity, with our commitment to fairness."

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