Thursday, October 10, 2013


Story first appeared in the Detroit News.

During U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments in December 2006, Jennifer Gratz recalls sitting in the courtroom and hearing justices refer to her name. It wasn’t a personal reference — they were alluding to the 2003 case with her name on it.

“Stop talking about me like that,” Gratz remembers thinking. “I’m not a policy. I’m a real person.”

The Southgate native was in the court that day because the case involved race and the 14th Amendment rights of students.

Her issue. Her cause.

For the past 17 years, Gratz, 36, has devoted her time and energy to fighting against racial preferences and unequal treatment under the law. Whether she likes it or not, she’s the face of the affirmative action fight she won against the University of Michigan in 2003, as well as Michigan’s racial preferences ban. “I’m so passionate about it,” she says.

Michigan’s ban, the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2006, was overturned last year by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The High Court has taken up the case and hears oral arguments Tuesday.

Gratz will be there. And it’s the second time in a decade she’ll be in the court regarding a case that involves her directly.

While this case doesn’t have her name on it, it holds her heart and soul. “I find this case more personal than the one that bears my name,” Gratz says.

That’s because she poured three years into getting the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative passed. Gratz says the day of the 2003 Supreme Court decision, she knew her fight wasn’t over.

“I realized I would dedicate my life to equality,” she recalls. Three years later, her efforts paid off.

But it hasn’t been easy. Married since 2003 and living in San Diego, Gratz largely spent those years working on the initiative in Michigan. She left her job at a software company and risked a long-distance relationship with her husband.

And now, depending on how the court rules on Michigan’s affirmative action ban, Gratz is mulling a run next year for U-M Board of Regents. To do that, she’d have to spend significant time away again from her husband and their new microbrewery in Fort Myers, Fla.

Why in the world would she want to devote that kind of time to a university that rejected her?

“I want to take the battle full circle,” Gratz says. As a regent, she’d be in a position to tackle some of her core concerns. “I’d be there to address hard issues.”

She’s adamant it’s not revenge or malice that drives her. “I love the university still,” she says. Gratz thinks sometimes about what direction her life would have taken if she’d been accepted. While her U-M Dearborn education was a good one, she knows it’s the not the same.

Yet she values the university and credits the U-M hospital for saving her brother’s life a few years ago, after he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

Gratz has continued her fight against affirmative action since she was a teenager, and she doesn’t regret it. For her, it’s about making institutions like U-M better by being fair in their admissions policies.

“I would do it all over again in an instant,” she says.

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