April 18, 2005
58, Number 27
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April 18, 2005
Lewis delivers front-line stories of diversity
BY eric Rangus
Provost Earl Lewis might not be a lawyer—he is a historian by discipline—but he was perhaps the perfect person to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling two summers ago that upheld the right of universities to consider race as a factor in admissions.
At the time Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger entered the district courts in 1997, Lewis was a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the institution whose policies were being called into constitutional question.
On April 11 in Tull Auditorium, Lewis described watching those cases progress and discussed what the Supreme Court’s decisions might mean during his talk, “Affirmative Action: Did the Supreme Court Save It?” The event was sponsored by the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion (CISR) as part of its Family Forum Series.
“Is it possible to have an honestly balanced conversation about race?” Lewis asked and quickly answered. “I’m not sure. We didn’t see it with Gratz and Grutter, and I don’t see it in the days and weeks ahead. I hope you can change my mind.”
Over a 30-minute presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session lasting nearly that long, Lewis and the standing-room-only crowd explored that possibility. “From the beginning, the University of Michigan defended diversity instead of affirmative action,” Lewis said, adding that the phrase “affirmative action” does not appear in the text of the Supreme Court decisions.
“Affirmative action lends itself more readily to a narrative of unfairness; an unqualified student replaces a more qualified student,” Lewis said, adding that even opponents agreed that no unqualified students were admitted to Michigan at the expense of prospective students who would have been admitted otherwise.
Lewis not only tracked the cases’ progressions through the courts (which included dozens of amici briefs, such as one signed by Emory in support of Michigan’s policy), he also described in-depth the admissions policies (one for the Michigan law school, the other dealing with undergraduate admissions) called into question.
But perhaps most interesting was his chronicle of the history of diversity at the University of Michigan, which dated to the 19th century, and the fascinating political stew that resulted from those efforts. Historically, Lewis said, the state’s Democratic legislature and governors backed the university’s diversity policies. Even when a Republican was elected governor in the mid-1990s, it was agreed that the administration would not challenge the issue of diversity “as long as it did not become an issue of affirmative action,” Lewis said.
Some Republican state legislators did not go along, though, and placed ads in several newspapers asking for people to come forward if they felt they had been discriminated against by the university. More than 500 names were collected and reviewed by a Washington-based think tank, the Center for Individual Rights.
“They picked three,” Lewis said. (The Gratz case against Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy had two plaintiffs.) “And those names will now grace constitutional law textbooks forever.”
On June 23, 2003, the Supreme Court found in favor of the University of Michigan, although it was necessary to adjust some formulas for undergraduate admissions. Still, according to Lewis, the story doesn’t really end there.
Although he confessed hesitation about looking toward the future—a historian’s job in interpreting the past—Lewis did raise several possible consequences. One was that opponents could renew their efforts to reframe the debate around affirmative action rather than diversity.
Also, the specter of lawsuits could influence university budgets, Lewis said, possibly affecting funding for diversity programs. Activists in some states, including Michigan, have gotten referendums on ballots that, if passed, would ban the use of race and gender in employment decisions and university admissions. Finally, there is a danger of “diversity fatigue,” meaning that even diversity’s strongest supporters can eventually tire of fighting.
“The larger, more lingering story doesn’t just deal with race and academic opportunity,” Lewis said in conclusion. “We all need to ask, even if affirmative action has survived, what does it mean?”
Lewis, whose titles include executive vice president for academic affairs and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies, spent five years on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, before moving to Michigan in 1989. He served in several capacities including as dean of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies. He is author or co-editor of seven books, including Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (University of Michigan Press, 2004).
Lewis took over as Emory’s provost—and became the University’s highest-ranking African American administrator in history—last July. “He has already taken this institution by intellectual storm,” said CISR Director John Witte during his introduction of Lewis.