Book by: Michael Olivas
Review by: Katya Konkle
Southern Utah University

With higher education becoming increasingly litigious—such as students who sue their universities over grades or not finding jobs (Yates, 2013; Kessler, 2009) and even by universities suing students for defaulting on their Perkins loans (Lorin, 2013)—Olivas’s Suing Alma Mater, a review of the past 50-plus years of higher education case law in general and six cases in depth, is particularly timely.

Through his review of 122 cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) concerning higher education from 1959 to 2010, Olivas has revealed some interesting patterns. One of the most enlightening sections of the book details the rise of “purposive organizations.” Liberal organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (of which Olivas has been the director since 2002) and conservative organizations such as the Center for Equal Opportunity and the Alliance Defense Fund (now the Alliance Defending Freedom) have played an increasingly important role in higher education litigation. This section (and the book’s conclusion) is where Olivas allows himself to become somewhat vitriolic in addressing the effect conservative organizations have had on higher education law, such as challenges to affirmative action policies and “claims for increased religious accommodation” (p. 62), all the while “interpreting iconic liberal decisions in their favor … to advance their interests” (p. 63). Olivas states that conservative organizations, through the legal process, have “managed to transform its majoritarian features in victimhood and special pleading” (p. 73), “categorize whites as hapless victims” (p. 87), and act “in a nihilistic and obstructionist fashion” (p. 145). Readers who align themselves with the religious right may have trouble swallowing Olivas’s characterizations of organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom in such words, while liberals will agree with his belief that affirmative action policies must continue in order to mitigate racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic gaps that continue to plague the U.S.

Although written in a wry and tongue-in-cheek voice (one chapter is titled “Jews Need Not Apply”), the prose is dense and readers may find it difficult at times to parse out all the information he packs into one thought. While Olivas makes an attempt to make this book accessible to the lay reader, those without any legal background or familiarity with higher education law could very well struggle to keep all of the cases straight, especially as Olivas has a tendency to make reference to cases early on in the book that are not explained more in-depth until later chapters. Lay readers will also want to become familiar with such legalese as dispositive issues, strict scrutiny, judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and writ of certiorari before attempting the book.

This book would make an excellent supplemental text for a higher education law course in a student affairs graduate program, as well for faculty advisors who are interested in exploring some of their legal rights and restrictions in regards to their teaching. For professional academic advisors, however, this book would not be useful in their regular practice and could be easily skipped over.


Kessler, J. (2009, August 4). Alumna sues college because she hasn't found a job. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com.

Lorin, J. (2013, February 5). Yale suing former students shows crisis in loans to poor. Bloomberg. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com.

Yates, R. (2013, February 12). Lehigh University student sues over grade, seeks $1.3 million. The Morning Call. Retrieved from http://articles.mcall.com

Suing Alma Mater: Higher Education and the Courts. (2013). Book by Michael Olivas. Review by Katya Konkle. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 240 pp. $32.95 (paperback). ISBN #978-1-424140-923-8.

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