UT’s biggest admissions critic turns sights to Harvard, North Carolina

Not too many people take a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Edward Blum has ushered four to the court — including one involving the University of Texas — in a 20-year quest to end the use of racial and ethnic considerations in college admissions, voting rights and other aspects of public policy.

And he’s not even a lawyer.

Rather, his role has been primarily as a strategist and matchmaker, lining up funding, lawyers and plaintiffs. And in each case, including the lawsuit challenging UT, his alma mater, Blum has succeeded in chipping away against the use of race.

Now the former stockbroker and onetime candidate for Congress is taking on Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In lawsuits filed in federal courts last month against those two schools, he seeks “the outright prohibition of racial preferences in university admissions — period.”

In contrast with the more narrowly focused UT case, the new lawsuits are designed to morph into a sweeping challenge to racial considerations in admissions at virtually all public and private colleges in the nation — assuming that the litigation eventually makes its way to the Supreme Court.

“It doesn’t surprise me that this is the next stage in attempts to dismantle affirmative action in higher education,” said Steven Schwinn, an associate professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. In part as a result of the UT case, “I think the court might be getting ready to reconsider Grutter,” he said, referring to a landmark 2003 ruling in which the high court narrowly upheld racial and ethnic preferences at the University of Michigan.

The 62-year-old Blum — pronounced “bloom” — was inspired to become an advocate for ending the use of race in public policy when he lost an election in 1992 to represent Houston’s 18th congressional district. He and a few other Republicans sued, and the Supreme Court ruled that district boundaries had been redrawn in a way that amounted to unconstitutional “racial gerrymandering” to increase the voting strength of African-Americans. Blum is white.

Blum had found his passion: effecting change through the courts.

But if not for his early investment in Dell Computer Corp., now Dell Inc., he might not have had the luxury of time to devote to his cause. Blum had been working at the Paine Webber brokerage house in Houston, and one of his colleagues was Lorraine Dell, the mother of Michael Dell, the computer company’s founder.

Blum didn’t think much of her son’s decision to drop out of UT to sell computers, but he was nevertheless impressed with the young man’s business acumen. Blum’s investment in the company, whose stock price soared, made him one of the so-called Dellionaires.

“That played a very significant role in my freedom to not have a full-time career,” said Blum, who has a gentle demeanor and chooses his words carefully. He advises a handful of wealthy families on money and policy matters, and he serves as a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

Blum’s one-man band

The phone number posted on the website for Students for Fair Admissions, the listed plaintiff for the suits against Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill, rings Blum’s cellphone, and the group’s mailing address is a PostNet shop in Austin’s Northwest Hills that Blum has used for years to forward all of his mail. He splits his time between South Thomaston, Maine, his principal residence, and New York City, and occasionally pops into Austin, where he used to have a house in Hyde Park.

“I’m a one-man band,” Blum said. “The most important thing I’ve got is a network of really bright, eager lawyers — active counsel and those who just act as advisers to me.”

The lawyers “provide representation at a fraction of the cost that a typical commercial litigant would pay,” he said. “I pay for those services much like any other advocacy or legal-defense group. I raise money from individuals and foundations, and hope that my efforts are sufficient enough to keep these lawsuits going.”

Blum declined to identify his donors, but Internal Revenue Service filings show that the supporters include such foundations as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee and the Searle Freedom Trust in Chicago, both of which tout their focus on limited government and individual freedom. The Bradley foundation contributed $100,000 in 2012, and the Searle trust gave $450,000 that year.

Blum has also ushered two Voting Rights Act challenges to the Supreme Court, one by Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 and one by Shelby County, Ala. The court’s decision in the latter case, delivered a day after its UT ruling, struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act, freeing Texas and several other mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination to change election laws without advance federal approval.

“He’s been quite successful, and I’m sure he would tell you he’s committed to equal rights for everybody under the law,” said Doug Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who has helped UT’s legal team in the admissions case. “But he’s only motivated to act with respect to laws that protect minorities. There’s a more cynical interpretation of what he’s doing. I don’t know enough about him to be able to choose.”

For his part, Blum said judgments based on skin color or ethnic background are fundamentally wrong.

“Like the majority of Americans, I believe that government should not classify people by their race and ethnicity and treat them differently because of their race and ethnicity,” he said. “It is unnecessary, unjust and unconstitutional.”

UT ruling a springboard

In the UT case, the Supreme Court voted 7-1 last year to order a lower court to apply “strict scrutiny” in reviewing the university’s admissions program to ensure that it is “narrowly tailored” and that “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.”

About three-fourths of UT’s freshmen gain admission solely on the basis of class rank, but the remaining applicants are given a multifaceted review that takes race and ethnicity into account. A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld UT’s program in July by a 2-1 vote, and the full court declined to reconsider the case this month.

Blum said his legal team will once again ask the high court to take up the case of Abigail Fisher, a white UT applicant who didn’t qualify for automatic admission.

The lawsuits against Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill contend that they routinely reject well-qualified Asian-Americans solely on the basis of race. Harvard’s practice is reminiscent of its suppression of Jewish enrollment years ago, Blum said.

Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill say their admissions programs pass legal muster.

The case against UT was underwritten by the Project on Fair Representation, of which Blum is director. He formed a new nonprofit, Students for Fair Admissions, to litigate the Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill cases.

A male Asian-American student rejected by Harvard and a white male student rejected by UNC-Chapel Hill have agreed to participate in the lawsuits against those schools, Blum said. He declined to identify them but said their names would come out as the cases move forward. He expects a handful of students to participate in each case.

Similar challenges might well be filed against other highly competitive public and private universities that, in Blum’s view, operate what essentially amount to quota systems for Asian-Americans, blacks, Hispanics and whites.

“We are prepared to challenge additional schools that have not complied with the new strict scrutiny standards that the Supreme Court handed down in Fisher,” Blum said. “We stand prepared to file them as quickly as individuals bring us new complaints.”

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