In Memoriam: Michael A. Olivas

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The four-word text arrived at 3:49 pm April 22nd: Michael Olivas passed away..

The news came as a shock:  That past week, Michael had been widely quoted in new reports, slamming a federal court judge’s ruling that the University of North Texas can’t charge out-of-state students more tuition than undocumented students.

To those unfamiliar with his name, Michael A. Olivas was perhaps the nation’s leading academic authority on higher education law, immigration law, and state educational finance policies.

The William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law Emeritus at the University of Houston Law Center, he was past president of the Association of American Law Schools, three-time chair of the AALS Section on Education Law and twice chair of the Section on Immigration Law.  He also served as General Counsel to the American Association of University Professors.  He even hosted a radio show, “The Law of Rock and Roll,” which addressed such topics as copyright law in music, the rights of back-up singers, and the legality of noise ordinances.

If you seek his monuments, just look around.  He was instrumental in designing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows those brought to the United States as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and makes them eligible for employment.

He also played a pivotal role in crafting Texas’s 10 Percent Plan that guarantees admission to the University of Texas at Austin to those students who finish toward the top of their high school graduating class.

His Dirty Dozen list, which identified some 40 law schools that had no Latinos and Latinas on their faculty, triggered many diversity efforts in legal education beginning in the 1980s…

A J.D. (from Georgetown) and a Ph.D. (from Ohio State) with a master’s degree in English literature, he was at once a scholar and an activist, an insider and an insurgent, and a member of the legal establishment and among that establishment’s most ardent critics.  His career makes it clear that these stances are not mutually exclusive.

For eight years, he studied to become a Catholic priest, and while he didn’t enter that vocation, he did embrace the view that much as anyone can be saved, the higher educational system needs to use its discretion and other tools available to diversify its student body.  Texas’s 10 Percent Plan offered a example of how his outside the box thinking and creative coalition building could create a broadly acceptable solution to what has come to be regarded as an political intractable problem.=

His books – which include The Law and Higher EducationSuing Alma Mater: Higher Education and the CourtNo Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Schoolchildren, and Perchance to DREAM: A Political and Legal History of the DREAM Act – are high caliber scholarly works that are rigorously researched and highly analytic, and which speak to key issues of this historical moment.

His writings on the social science of law school admissions sheds light on his writing style and the nature of his thinking.  In response to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s discussion of the so-called “pool” and “pipeline” problem in admissions, he wrote:

“…I would like to enact a ban on , or at least a restraining order, on the ‘pool’ and the ‘pipeline’ [metaphors] … I believe the paradigms of pool and pipeline are inapt, because they misconstrue the nature of the problems… and because they misdirect attention.  A pool is static, likely to turn brackish, and bounded.  It requires restocking and resupply, and if it overflows its bounds, it is no longer a pool. Most crucially, it can become stagnant and unusable without fresh water; it cannot replace itself.”

He offered a river as an alternative metaphor.  A river can be fed, refreshed, replenished, and redirected.  With some effort, higher education can and should take active and affirmative steps to identify, recruit, and increase a diversity of talent.  This metaphor epitomized Michael’s commitment to ensuring an equal right to a quality education for all.

Michael found ways to combine activism and scholarship that did not diminish or sacrifice one for the other.  His example should, I hope, inform and inspire a new generation of graduate students who are more self-consciously committed to engaged research and advocacy than their predecessors.

Scholar activism is, increasingly, the order of the day.  A growing number of scholars, like Michael, view their research and advocacy roles as inseparable, and are deeply, passionately committed to advancing equity, inclusiveness, and social change.

A 2018 collection of essays, edited by Laura Perna and entitled Taking It to the Streets, examined the role of scholars in advocating for such policies.  Contributors, including Sara Goldrick-Rab, Shaun R. Harper, Adrianna Kezar, and William G. Tierney, asked to what extent scholars should remain dispassionate and data focused or instead use their scholarship as a platform for reform.

Among the questions the volume explores are these:

  • How can scholars best produce research that is useful to policymakers and practitioners?
  • How should scholars differentiate themselves from advocates?
  • Can research conducted solely as an academic exercise be justified?
  • Do scholars who serve as public intellectuals undercut their scholarly authority?

The volume’s overarching answers are these:

  • It is quite right for scholars’ research agenda to reflect their political interests, but it is essential that their research design, data, and methods meet the standards of their discipline, that their interpretations are grounded in appropriate theoretical frameworks, and that their conclusions reflect their expertise, not simply opinion and anecdote.
  • Scholars should be extremely careful about accepting external research support that might call into question their impartiality, fairness, and open-minded quest for truth.
  • Scholars should remember their role:  Scholars aren’t politicians.  By drawing upon data and research, scholars can inform public understanding, educate policymakers, analyze policies, and suggest alternative solutions to pressing problems.  That’s enough.
  • Scholars shouldn’t hesitate to disseminate their research findings beyond the standard professional outlets.  There is no good reason not to address policymakers, write policy briefs and opinion essays, and make themselves available to journalists.  Nor should scholars avoid providing input to campus administrators about policy matters (for example, Title IX, sexual assault, student mental health and wellness, and student and faculty diversity) in which they have special expertise.
  • There is nothing wrong with scholars working closely with non-profits, advocacy organizations, and other stakeholders on issues of mutual concern.  However, in instances in which the scholars are studying a particular group, they must treat their research subjects as equal partners deserving of proper respect.  Engagement must be a two-way street.
  • In their role as teachers, faculty should encourage dialogue across viewpoint differences and help students learn the importance of supporting their positions and critiquing opposing viewpoints with evidence.  They can certainly foreground issues and interpretations that they consider essential, but must allow for the kinds of critical engagement that underlie serious scholarship.  As teachers, we mustn’t impose our views or require students to agree with our interpretations.

Anyone who knew Michael understood that those principles undergirded his approach to balancing advocacy and scholarship.

When I received word of Michael’s death, I hadn’t spent quality time with him for over a decade. We corresponded intermittently, and I followed his tenure as interim president of the University of Houston’s downtown campus closely.  To me, he represented what a faculty member can and should be

Death announcements no longer evoke the shock of the unexpected I felt when I was younger. But Michael’s death does, nevertheless, signal the beginning of the end of an era.  He is only the most recent colleague I have lost, as our generation heads toward the exits.

In a 1982 essay, “War and death, grief and mourning in modern Britain,” the eminent British historian David Cannadine described a sea change in attitudes toward death between the First and Second World Wars. In World War I’s wake, faith in an afterlife remained largely intact, and was manifest most vividly in a rage for spiritualism.  Death was still valorized as an expression of God’s will and wartime death was regarded an expression of patriotic duty and self-sacrifice, which was commemorated with dozens of Memorial Stadiums and Memorial Halls.

During World War II, in contrast, death was increasingly regarded by the soldiers as arbitrary and random and, yes, without larger meaning.  Some were lucky; others weren’t.  It’s not an accident that the Second World War, unlike the first, was not commemorated with a host of memorials.  The loss was tragic, but also profoundly personal.

Which is why preserving the memory of the deceased is immensely important.  If death lacks cosmic significance, it is profoundly meaningful on a human level.

Farewell, Michael. I can only hope that the academy shall see your likes again.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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