Gratz ready to make her case before high court
By Bill Mears
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Jennifer Gratz's life has taken her to sunny Southern California, but in many ways her heart and her hopes lie halfway across the country with a school she never attended.
"I still love the University of Michigan, and I still root for them in every way I can," she told CNN recently. "I just think their policy is wrong."
The policy is the school's controversial student admissions criteria. Gratz is a key plaintiff in Gratz v. Bollinger, one of two affirmative action cases that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday.
At issue is whether race be used as a factor in admissions to publicly-funded institutions, as part of an affirmative action program.
The issue is a divisive one, and has put Gratz at the center of a political and ideological battle. She rejects suggestions she is either a darling of conservatives or a foe of diversity.
"I am just ready for the University of Michigan to change its policy."
Gratz was a top student in 1995 at Southgate Anderson High, a nearly all-white school in a blue-collar suburb of Detroit. She had a 3.8 grade-point average, was enrolled in honors classes, and participated in science club, student government, cheerleading, and volunteer work.
The admitted over-achiever said a top college education was important to her and her family. Her father was a police sergeant, her mother a secretary. "Neither of my parents graduated from college," she said. "I would have been the first person graduating from college in my family, and I knew that would make my family proud and was just excited about the University of Michigan."
But despite carefully working on her application for several months to the only school she applied, Michigan said no.
"I was obviously devastated, I was disappointed, I was embarrassed, I was upset, I read the first three lines of the letter and immediately started crying." Gratz remembers. "My dad was home at the time and I actually looked at him and said 'Can we sue them?' and a lot of people wonder what my intentions were when I said that, and the truth is I knew at that point something was wrong."
The university openly acknowledges it considers race in its application screening. The process is very competitive for one of the most prestigious public universities in the country. Michigan's undergraduate program selects only about 5,000 students out of 25,000 applications.
Since 1992, the school had used a complex point system to grade undergraduate applicants. "Underrepresented" racial and ethnic minorities-- African-Americans, Hispanics, native Americans-- are awarded extra points. In the 2002 class, these groups made up 17 percent of Michigan's freshman class, said the university.
The school's law school has a separate admissions policy that will also be part of arguments before the Supreme Court.
University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman defends the policy.
"Despite noble aspirations and considerable progress, our society remains deeply troubled by issues of race. Against that backdrop, there are important educational benefits -- for students and for the wider society -- associated with a diverse, racially integrated student body."
Gratz and a group of other white students rejected by the university see things differently. In 1997, with help from the Center for Individual Rights, they sued. Opponents of the university's policy say race is a "super factor," awarding a "racial bonus" that can boost a minority applicant's GPA by a full grade point.
For Gratz, her argument is simple, if misunderstood by many: "This lawsuit has been labeled an affirmative action lawsuit, and to me this lawsuit isn't about affirmative action," she explained. "It's about racial preferences."
Gratz denies she has become an activist or "poster child" for opponents of affirmative action. But it is her name that is featured prominently on the lawsuit, and she has had to withstand charges she is a bigot.
"I think that people should be treated equally and shouldn't be treated differently because of skin color," she said. "And I think to call me a racist for standing up for that is kind of crazy."
Despite having the lawsuit consuming much of her time and her emotions over the past eight years, Gratz says she has moved on with her life. The 25-year-old eventually graduated from a nearby college, but abandoned her dream of becoming a doctor. She left her home state two years ago and now works as a software trainer for a vending supply company north of San Diego. She is newly married, and "very happy" at the support she has received from friends, family, even complete strangers.
"I don't think I have any regrets; I would do it all over again" she says. "It's been a pretty positive experience. I think people realize I am standing up for something that I believe in, regardless of their position on the issue, and it takes a strong person to do that."