Barbara Grutter keeps getting surprised. Last week, she was hit with the sudden glare of national media attention after a federal judge ruled she had indeed been excluded from law school by an illegitimate system of racial preferences in admission.
The ruling sent a tremor across the landscape of higher education. Ms. Grutter's case added a jolt of legal momentum to what is looking increasingly possible: a Supreme Court decision against the use of race in higher-education admissions nationwide.
From the University of California to Harvard, race has at times been employed as a "tip factor" in admissions. It's been that way since the landmark Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case in 1978. Now some say the case of Grutter v. University of Michigan School of Law could be the next landmark Supreme Court case that shakes and shapes all of higher education.
"I'm sure there are schools just like Michigan who are going to have to reexamine their policies," says Larry Purdy, the Detroit-based attorney who co-argued the case for Grutter. "Every college and university or professional school has got to look at this decision and make sure they are in compliance with the constitutional requirement and the language of the Civil Rights Act."
And there's nobody more interested or surprised about that than Grutter. Her quixotic journey began in the summer of 1997, when she got a form letter rejecting her application to the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.
She was surprised because she knew her qualifications were pretty good: a 3.8 grade-point average as an undergraduate and straight As in graduate courses, with "respectable LSAT scores," she says. She also had run a consulting business and had corporate experience, too - a critical "third element" she was told law schools look for.
"I really could not go to some other law school. I live here. My family's here. So to achieve my goal, I needed to go to the University of Michigan."
Still, she took the rejection letter in stride - at first. But things changed quickly after she picked up a Detroit newspaper a few days later. In it was an article detailing others' complaints about admission. It also showed average test scores and grades of minority applicants to the Michigan law school. All were considerably lower than her own, she says.
Right then, she decided she had been discriminated against. So she sent her information to a local state representative, who passed it along to a lawyer.
"I had always taught (my kids) discrimination was wrong and the law protects them from that. I could have been angry and bitter - or whined about it - or I could do something positive. I viewed filing a lawsuit as a positive thing," Ms. Gutter told the Monitor.
Yes, she still wants to be a lawyer. Would she attend the University of Michigan if it offered her a spot? "Oh, I don't think they'd do that," she laughs. "I'm not their favorite person right now. Besides, they're going to appeal. They're convinced that they're right."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor