Carl Cohen's book, A Conflict of Principles: The Battle Over Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan, is important for anyone who cares about the use of race and ethnicity in making university admissions decisions, the practice widely referred to as “affirmative action.” The author, a University of Michigan professor, was not only an observer but also a key participant in the long struggle against the use of racial and preferences at his school. So the book is part memoir, part history, part policy—and all excellent. Because of the part he played in this fight, Professor Cohen has insights, knowledge, and perspectives unavailable to anyone else.
The book begins with some political and legal background, and then turns specifically to the use of racial and ethnic admission preferences at the University of Michigan. Professor Cohen played an important role in uncovering the extent to which race was weighed in admission decisions, which was in turn an important contribution to the legal challenge that followed and that resulted in a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 2003, Gratz v. Bollinger (undergraduate) and Grutter v. Bollinger (law school).
Those decisions, while limiting the extent to which discrimination would be allowed, still permitted it, and so the stage was set for the successful ballot initiative that amended the state constitution in Michigan to ban the use of racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination and preference in state employment, contracting, and education—including university admissions. That ballot initiative was then challenged in a lawsuit, which also found its way to the Supreme Court, and the Court upheld the ban on racial preferences.
The book is 100 percent rancor-free—more about that in the full review—which is amazing for this topic.