University of Michigan applicant pushes to keep gender, race out of admissions

DETROIT (MCT) – Eric Russell didn’t get his wish, didn’t get admitted to the University of Michigan Law School next year.

But that’s OK with him – as long as his rejection was without consideration of his race or gender.

Russell, a 30-year-old white Auburn Hills, Mich., resident, got word recently that his admission to the law school was denied. He said he is prepared to believe the university followed Proposal 2 – which bans the use of race or gender in making admissions decisions.

“The university stated publicly that they’re in compliance,” he said Feb. 15. “I’m going to take them at their word until anything to the contrary surfaces.”

But he said he’ll keep fighting to make sure Proposal 2, approved by voters in November, remains the law of the state.

A soft-spoken and reserved instructor of Spanish and German at Wayne State University, Russell is the latest in a line of people who have fought to end affirmative action in the state’s university admission policies, a stand that places him in the company of Ward Connerly, Barbara Grutter and Jennifer Gratz.

He remains a party in the federal case challenging the Nov. 7 referendum’s constitutionality, with Russell defending the ballot question and saying he believes the issue of fairness outweighs the need for affirmative action. The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the group ‘By Any Means Necessary’ are among those challenging the constitutionality of the ban, arguing it only made it onto the ballot through voter fraud and that it is, on its face, discriminatory. A scheduling conference is set for March 21 before U.S. District Judge David Lawson in Detroit.

At issue for Russell is the fundamental right of voters to have their will carried out.

“People were very angry about this,” he said. “People who were not even applying to the University of Michigan were very upset, and I was too.” Russell’s belief that the issue comes down to a question of fairness notwithstanding, affirmative action supporters say the referendum – and the fight to implement it, represented by Russell – comes down to racism.

“He’s a front man for segregation, and that whatever he’s saying, the truth of the matter is that he’s aiming to exclude thousands of black and Latino students from the universities of this state,” said Shanta Driver, spokeswoman for ‘By Any Means Necessary.’

“The real heroes are the Latino and black students who are standing up for their rights, building a new civil rights movement and demanding equality.

Then, after the election, he said he was outraged to hear University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman pledge to fight the ban.

“I believe she was slapping the voters in the face, and the applicant pool as well,” Russell said. “To me, her underlying message was … essentially we’ll do anything we can to not follow this.”

After that, Russell sought out Terence Pell, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights, to represent him in a lawsuit Russell filed in Washtenaw County Circuit Court seeking an order requiring the university to immediately comply with the ban. As someone with an application to Michigan’s law school, he had standing to file in court.

Last month, the University of Michigan announced it would comply with the referendum, leading Russell to drop that lawsuit.

The federal case is pending. He is the only individual mentioned in the case on the side supporting the ban, while ‘By Any Means Necessary’ has more than two dozen opposing it.

“I’m not suing for admission. I’m suing for equal treatment under the law without regard to race,” Russell said several weeks ago. “If they reject me because my GPA is too low, because my test scores are too low and they don’t think I’ll be able to cut it in their program, then so be it.”

Last fall, Russell got involved with Proposal 2 by volunteering in the campaign headed by Gratz and Connerly, who pushed and passed a similar ballot issue in California a decade ago.

Russell said he just wanted to support a cause he believed in.

“I am a newspaper reader, and a news consumer, so I knew that it was out there, and I have interest in what goes on in my country, in my state,” he said. Russell wrote letters to various newspapers, including the Free Press, supporting the ban.

Russell’s mother, Carol Russell, said it’s not surprising that her son would step forward in this case.

“He’s a very determined person when he gets something in his mind,” she said. “This doesn’t surprise me at all. He told me, ‘I will be president some day.’ I don’t know whether he was being funny or not. I could see him doing it, once he puts his mind to it.”

Russell said he plans to attend Wayne State’s law school next year, and that he’ll try again for admission to the University of Michigan through a transfer.

“What is most important to me is that my original application and my transfer application are processed under the new law – that no matter when I apply, I receive fair consideration,” he said.