Affirmative action takes toll on innocent

March 01, 1998|By George F. Will

LOS ANGELES -- Guatemala's civil war was one motivation to move. Another was the 1976 earthquake that killed 23,000 and would have killed Alvaro Cardona if his head had still been on the pillow where the large adobe brick fell. So when he was 9, his father brought the family north. To Los Angeles, on the San Andreas fault. To South Central, a war zone of gangs.

However, Mr. Cardona thrived. He left high school, married and started a family at 16, became manager of some Subway restaurants, passed the exam for a high school equivalency degree, enrolled at a community college, then at the University of California in Los Angeles, studying history. He is now so thoroughly Americanized he is suing someone.

His UCLA financial-aid package required that he work. While in community college he had tutored students in English, and he sought employment tutoring in UCLA's Academic Advancement Program, an affirmative action program. It has approximately 7,500 students.

A grilling

In November 1995, when Mr. Cardona was interviewed for an AAP tutorial position, he says the interviewer repeatedly spoke to him about UCLA's "institutionalized racism" and interrogated him about his views on affirmative action. Mr. Cardona told her he had mixed feelings.

But, he says, he was never asked about his qualifications or experience as a tutor. He says the interviewer worried that he would stress academics "too much" because half of a tutor's job is to "validate" students' feelings about institutionalized racism and discrimination.

Mr. Cardona says he told the AAP interviewer he would try to allay students' fears and help them find assistance if they experienced discrimination, but that he thought his primary job as a tutor would be to help students become coherent writers.

In December 1995, he says, he was told that he would not be hired as a tutor because he did not understand discrimination and did not wholeheartedly support affirmative action, but that he should apply again after he had discovered what UCLA is "really like."

Only in America: Aided by libertarian litigators at Washington's Institute for Justice, Mr. Cardona is suing UCLA, charging that he was denied a job because he did not think sufficiently poorly of UCLA. And apparently he was denied the job because he agreed with the University of California's board of regents, which in July 1995 had voted to eliminate race and gender preferences in university programs.

His contention is that employment was unconstitutionally made conditional on his surrender of his First Amendment right to free speech. He is not challenging the legality of racial preferences, which California voters in 1996 proscribed in government programs. He is asserting a right to speak freely about them in settings that do not involve students or interfere with student-teacher relations.

The AAP argues that deference should be shown to academic freedom, which involves making judgments about teaching methods, and that someone unsympathetic to AAP's premises might not be an effective tutor. However, the Supreme Court has held that such speculative worries cannot justify the specific action of denying employment.

Institutional prerogatives in higher education should not be disdained. But neither should American premises, which seem to have been discarded in Mr. Cardona's case.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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