February 16, 2004

State of Race to debate affirmative action

By Eric Rangus

Affirmative action will be the theme of the fourth annual State of Race debate to be held Thursday, Feb. 19, at 8:30 p.m. in Glenn Auditorium. Squaring off will be Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University and the defendant in the landmark University of Michigan affirmative action cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last year; and Linda Chavez, a well-known conservative commentator and president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit, public- policy research organization.

"The subject matter is especially timely and relevant to the Emory campus since the administration uses affirmative action and is a supporter of the policy," said Amanda Edwards, president of College Council, which sponsors the debate.

Bollinger became the 19th president of Columbia University on Oct. 3, 2002. Prior to his appointment, he was dean of the University of Michigan Law School, provost at Dartmouth College and president of Michigan, a position he held from 1996 through his appointment at Columbia.

Bollinger was named as the defendant in two court cases that challenged the Michigan law school's affirmative action policy as well as Michigan's affirmative action policy for undergraduate admissions. In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law school's policy, which uses a points system for admission that takes race into consideration. But the court ruled for the plaintiff in the undergraduate case, stating that its points system (which gave minorities 20 additional points for admission) violated equal protection provisions in the Constitution.

"It is a great thing to have the greatest universities in this country become more diverse," Bollinger told the Detroit Free Press in 1999, while still at Michigan. "It is extremely important that the students who go to these great selective institutions be educated in an environment that has people of different racial, ethnic and other backgrounds and capacities."

Early last year Emory was one of 38 private colleges and universities that signed an amicus "friend of the court" brief supporting Michigan's admissions policies.

In addition to her public-policy work, Chavez is a syndicated newspaper columnist as well as a political analyst for Fox News Channel. She has written several books, was staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan administration, and long has been an opponent of affirmative action.

"Affirmative action creates problems with standards and increases racial friction," she told USA Today in 1995. "And it's simply not just."

Edwards, who was casually familiar with Chavez's work, became more attuned last summer when she was on a public- policy fellowship. "I read some articles Chavez had written and they were pretty fiery," Edwards said. "She's well known, has strong opinions and she's well spoken."

After working with an agency to secure Chavez's appearance, Edwards went after Bollinger.   In fact, she convinced the same agency that represents Chavez to represent the Columbia president, who does not do a lot of public speaking off campus. The agency lined Bollinger up last fall and the debate was set.

This is the third State of Race debate Edwards has helped plan. As a council representative, she worked on the 2002 debate between NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and commentator and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes. As council vice president, Edwards and then-president Purvi Patel hosted in 2003 Michelle Alexander, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Northern California, and author Dinesh D'Souza.

Budgeted at around $25,000, the debate is by far the council's most expensive event. As such, 24 co-sponsors are signed on to support it.

The event already has received some attention outside the Emory campus, Edwards said. Atlanta alumni of Columbia University have inquired about ticket availability (1,200 are expected for the free, non-ticketed event). University of Michigan alumni also have been in contact.

"I think an event such as this is good for the entire Atlanta community," Edwards said. "This topic is relevant to everyone, not just Emory."