School reverses denial of aid for loans over military duty

Law professors wanted to take stand against services' anti-gay policy

March 31, 2002|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ST. LOUIS - The letter writer did not mince words. "Have the faculty members who endorsed this decision been on the planet Earth since 9/11?"

The object of her scorn: the law professors at Washington University. The reason: their decision to help pay off the student loans of graduates who take jobs serving the public - unless those jobs are in the U.S. military.

In an effort to encourage more students to consider low-paying jobs such as prosecuting criminals or advising nonprofit groups, the law school faculty this month voted to help graduates in such "public service" posts with their often-staggering student debt. But, on a 12-11 vote, they excluded graduates who go to work for any organization that discriminates.

And that, in their view, left out the military, which has ousted homosexuals from the ranks under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The decision drew immediate criticism. Irate alumni bombarded the dean's office with complaints. Veterans proclaimed themselves insulted. Indignant letters filled the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , calling the move "ludicrous," "disgraceful" and "downright anti-American." The paper's editorial board, on most issues proudly liberal, declared that the faculty had gone too far.

The pressure was tremendous. And last week, law school Dean Joel Seligman bowed to it. "This has been an agonizing issue," he said. "I cannot overstate that." Then he announced that he was overruling the faculty. The debt relief program would be open to graduates entering the military.

The response has been more anger. Students and faculty have been pressed to examine - and defend - their views on patriotism, principle and justice. Many are finding that the sands have shifted: Even on a liberal campus that for years has criticized the military's stance on homosexuality, it's no longer considered politically correct to bash the Pentagon during a war on terrorism.

Some faculty members are fearful of speaking on the record, lest they alienate colleagues on the bitterly divided campus.

Aftershocks of Sept. 11 "have colored this debate in a really unfortunate way," said T.J. Hill, president of Outlaw, the school's gay and lesbian organization.

The fault lines run like this:

People who back the dean argue the need to treat all students equally. It would have been hypocritical, they say, to discriminate against aspiring military lawyers in the name of protesting discrimination. And it would be unfair to punish students for a personnel policy set by Congress and the Pentagon.

"Just because someone is patriotic and opts to serve their country, I don't think that in any way suggests that they personally want to discriminate against homosexuals," said Randy Soriano, a third-year student who came to Washington University after serving in the Marines as an infantry captain.

"I sacrificed 7 1/2 years of my life to serve my country. For the school to imply that's wrong ... is a slap in the face," Soriano said.

Others counter that standing up for the rights of homosexuals must trump any other consideration. A law school committed to justice, they say, should not reward students who choose to work for an organization that discriminates, whether it's the Ku Klux Klan or the Marines.

Even - or perhaps, especially - in this era of surging patriotism, they argue that it's important to hold the government to task when its policies seem unjust.

"We wouldn't be tolerating this if it were about racial discrimination," rather than discrimination based on sexual orientation, said Professor Richard Kuhns. Excluding the military, he said, would have been "an important, if small, step making the point that discrimination is wrong."

On average, five law school graduates a year go into the military - out of a class of 200. Fewer still would qualify for debt relief because their expected incomes of about $41,000 a year (including benefits such as housing allowances) are relatively high for public-service jobs.

Pete Milne, the law school's business manager, estimates that most graduates taking jobs as military lawyers would be entitled to write off at most $3,000 in debt each year for several years. In contrast, students earning less than $25,000 a year could have their entire loans forgiven. (Most graduates would fall somewhere in the middle. The median starting salary for a public interest job is $34,000, which would qualify a student to get half his debt waived.)

But the amount of relief is not the point for Josh Girton, a student who hopes to serve as a Marine Corps lawyer. With tuition exceeding $27,000 a year, Girton expects to have "a ton" of debt by the time he graduates.

He could make the money to pay it off fairly quickly in private practice, where the median starting salary is $80,000. But Girton is committed to the Marines "out of a sense of indebtedness to my country," he said. So, he was stunned to learn that his professors did not deem the military a public service job worthy of subsidy.

"I was outraged," he said. "It was disrespectful."

His classmate Hill could say the same - only he would say it about the dean's decision to put the military back on the subsidy list. "It's very painful," he said. "For a few days, I was so proud to go to a university that really stood by its principles. Now I see it's like any other institution, subject to political pressure. It devalues my degree."

Stephanie Simon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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