Universalizing Access to the University: Earl Lewis on Marginalization in American Higher Education
Published on: May 09, 2007

Earl Lewis is the Provost of Emory University. Earl Lewis previously served as the University of Michigan Dean of Graduate Studies and Director of the University's Center for Afro-American and African Studies.

On June 23 2003, the United States Supreme Court famously upheld an appeal by Lee Bollinger, former president of the University of Michigan, against a lawsuit by Barbara Grutter, a white applicant to the University of Michigan Law School. Grutter alleged in the case that the law school had denied her admission to its programs because of its stance on affirmative action, which she claimed amounted to racial discrimination against whites.

The law school’s outgoing president, Jeffrey Lehman, countered in the university news service that the court’s decision against her had “approved a model for how to enroll a student body that is both academically excellent and racially integrated.” In a separate case on the same day, however, the court ordered the university to alter its undergraduate admissions policy on the grounds that it was “not narrowly tailored to achieve respondent’s asserted compelling interest in diversity,” as the court had required of affirmative action programs in the landmark 1978 case Regents of University of California vs. Bakke.

Among Bollinger’s and Lehman’s defenders in the Grutter case was the university’s then dean of graduate studies, Earl Lewis, an African American history professor who had served previously as director of the university’s Center for Afro-American and African Studies. The year after the court handed down its judgment, Lewis was promoted to provost of Emory University, the highest rank achieved by an African American at what the National Association of University and College Business Officers described as one of the 15 wealthiest higher education establishments in the U.S. last year.

While Lewis’s career moved from strength to strength in Atlanta, Ga., however, affirmative action at his previous workplace took a turn for the negative. On Nov. 7 2006, just over three years after Grutter vs. Bollinger, Michigan voters passed state ballot measure Proposal 2, which set out “to amend the state constitution to ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin.” Jennifer Gratz, the white plaintiff who won the Supreme Court case against the university on the day that Grutter lost hers, had invited activist Ward Connerly to campaign for the amendment after he successfully advocated similarly “colorblind” legislation in California, Florida and Washington State.

Lewis’s response in early December was to recommend legal action. “Those who are opposed to affirmative action are not going to go away, so this was anticipated,” he said, although he speculated that any lawsuits could have an adverse impact on funding. Just after the ruling, Mary Coleman, the university president, had nevertheless indicated that she was exploring this option, reportedly telling a crowd of students, “If November 7 was the day that Proposal 2 passed, then November 8 is the day we pledge to remain unified in our fight for diversity.”

Within a matter of weeks, however, the university’s talk of legal action was dropped, and Coleman swiftly convened a Diversity Blueprints taskforce designed to examine pre-admission support and holistic applications in the wake of the constitutional amendment. Although Lehman had asserted just after Grutter vs. Bollinger that “the question is no longer whether affirmative action is legal; it is how to hasten the day when affirmative action is no longer needed,” it now seemed legislative necessity prioritized the day when affirmative action would no longer be unpopular.

Lewis dismissed claims that this unpopularity in Michigan extended to blacks as well as whites. “This is a story of my views about race,” he explained, with a brief analogy. “Fifty percent of the population is female. In excess of 50 percent of the freshman class is female. Why would young women be opposed to programs designed to improve opportunities for women?”

Lewis also asserted that affirmative action on racial grounds had not eroded opportunities at Michigan for whites whose economic background had put them at an equal disadvantage. “Poor white kids had the same points on this system as African American kids,” he said. “But I don’t believe that the proponents of Proposal 2 were interested.” As far as SATs were concerned, university statistics showed that it was in fact harder for minority Asians to get into Michigan last year than whites, with Asians scoring an average of 50 points higher.

Lewis did not stop at overcoming the effects that racial disadvantages can have at the elementary and high school level. He believed that even younger minority academics with several years of higher education may not initially be able to reflect their full potential in their CVs, although he believed that once they had a chance to prove themselves they should be judged without the help of affirmative action.

“Should it be applied to recruitment? Yes. Should it be applied to promotion and tenure review? No,” he said, although just a year after Larry Summers resigned as president of Harvard after questioning the aptitude of women for scientific subjects, it remains unclear to what extent traditionally marginalized groups have received the full support of U.S. university leadership even later in their careers.

Lewis said that the fate of women in science departments was in fact a representative example of the discrimination that can result at the faculty level. “If you look at the number of young women majoring in science, some 40 to 50 percent of the graduate students are women,” he said. Faculty numbers are nevertheless suffering, he claimed, due to cultural practices weighted in favor of men, such as a woman’s grant schedule being penalized due to maternity leave.

He pointed out also that political attitudes towards traditionally marginalized groups are becoming increasingly unpredictable, given that a whole generation of baby-boomer management would soon be retiring. “My guess is that most research universities in the US will undergo a pretty sizeable generational shift in the next 10 years,” he said. And although the usual trend is to think of each generation as being more liberal than its forebears, Lewis feels “it’s conceivable that the younger generation will be more conservative,” as many of its members will have come of age post-Reagan.

The leadership of Lewis and his former Michigan colleagues Bollinger and Lehman in the nationwide affirmative action debate has not gone unnoticed, however. Even before Lewis’s appointment to Emory, Bollinger and Lehman were both made presidents of Ivy League universities, Bollinger at Columbia and Lehman at Cornell. Lehman resigned in 2005 after two-and-a-half years trying to advocate his progressive three-point agenda: “life in the age of the genome,” “wisdom in the age of digital information,” and “sustainability in the age of development.” Bollinger, by contrast, continues to oversee a controversial Columbia expansion that may displace inner-city African Americans, whose interests he was seen as championing at Michigan.

 Of Bollinger’s plans, Lewis remarked, “There’s room for improvement,” but he admitted that universities can face difficult choices when forced to keep up with the aggressive growth of U.S. higher education. He proposed that some of the more successful universities might offer to loan development staff to other institutions, even for just a one-day seminar, in order to help integrate the educational playing field. “The notion that you can let go of someone is hard, although maybe that’s where a foundation should step in,” he suggested.

 As the evolving affirmative action debate has proved, however, debate over how to proceed with new development initiatives threatens to be overshadowed by a more ethical question: how much do marginalized groups deserve to benefit? And for all the advocacy of university leaders such as Earl Lewis, majority initiatives such as Proposal 2 are set to prolong minority struggles at the ballot box still further.