February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

From the time she was a little girl watching college football with her dad, Jennifer Gratz had set her sights on the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In high school she stacked up the ammunition: Cheerleader. Student council vice president. A grade-point average of 3.7. “I hadn’t applied to any other schools,” she says, “because I knew this is where I would go.” But the admissions office had other ideas. When the rejection letter arrived in the mail one freezing March afternoon in 1995, it stung. “I felt totally cheated,” says Gratz, now 25. “I had worked for nothing.”

She settled for the university’s less prestigious Dearborn campus. Then she took the matter one giant leap further—and became part of a class-action lawsuit. Gratz claims that Michigan’s admissions policy gives unjust preference to minority applicants, creating a kind of reverse discrimination for white applicants. And she has support from the highest quarters, including President Bush, who on Jan. 16 filed a brief in the Supreme Court siding with Gratz and her fellow plaintiffs. Gratz’s case will be heard on April 1. With its potential to transform the way affirmative-action policies are applied on campuses across the country, the outcome could affect aspiring students of all ethnic backgrounds. In short, says Sheldon Steinbach of the American Council on Education, “this is the most significant civil-rights case in 25 years.”

Certainly it’s one being closely watched by the President, who has long opposed affirmative action. “At their core,” said Bush, “the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race.” Michigan officials, who note that grades are by far the most significant factor in admissions decisions, deny using quotas. “We have done spectacular things by creating a diverse student body,” says Mary Sue Coleman, president of the university, where enrollments of underrepresented minorities rose from an average of 7.2 percent in the early 1980s to 13.6 percent this year. “I don’t want to turn back the clock on our progress.”

For Gratz, who had planned on pre-med, the clock stopped the day she was rejected by Michigan. Her parents—Dad is a retired police officer; her mother is a systems analyst at a hospital—didn’t attend college, and Gratz hoped to make them proud. “I figured if I wasn’t good enough for U. of M. then I wasn’t good,” she says. “I stopped thinking about becoming a doctor.”

She soon got motivated again, though, majoring in math at Dearborn, near her family’s Southgate, Mich., home. Then, in the summer of 1997, her parents showed her an ad placed by the Center for Individual Rights, a D.C.-based Libertarian nonprofit law firm, seeking plaintiffs to challenge Michigan’s policy, which is similar to policies at many selective colleges and universities. “Everyone knows this goes on, that some kids get in because of the color of their skin,” she says. “If I could help, I was going to do anything.”

Within months the group filed its class-action suit, naming Gratz and Patrick Hamacher—a Flint native who was rejected in 1997—as plaintiffs. (In a related case, health-care consultant Barbara Grutter is challenging admissions policies at Michigan’s law school.) Now a software trainer living in Oceanside, Calif.—and newly wed to computer-network engineer Rob Whyte, 30—Gratz says her suit has made her consider a new career—perhaps in law. “I lost opportunities,” she says. “I don’t want anyone else to have that done to them.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Maureen Harrington in Oceanside, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C., and Amy Mindell in Ann Arbor

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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