Military provides a strong defense of affirmative action

March 31, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - It doesn't exactly amount to mutiny. But it's not every day that the commander in chief is opposed quite so publicly by the military.

Yet this is what's happening tomorrow when the Bush administration lines up behind opponents of affirmative action in the Supreme Court. There'll be enough brass on the other side to make a marching band.

The conflict is being brought by three white students who are challenging policies that allow race to be considered in admission to the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law schools in order to ensure diversity.

Specifically, the undergraduate admissions program grants 20 points on a scale of 150 for anything from an applicant's athletic ability to minority status. The law school considers many "soft variables," such as life experience, in addition to grades and scores, and seeks "meaningful numbers" of minorities.

The president damned these policies with the Q word, saying they amounted to a "quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race." He declared he was, of course, in favor of diversity but opposed to the Michigan way.

This assault produced some friendly fire in a brief signed by about 30 retired military officers, including three former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other generals, such as Norman Schwarzkopf and Anthony Zinni.

This (four) star-studded crowd defended the admissions policies of the service academies, which are extremely vulnerable if Michigan loses. They said, in a nutshell, that the "compelling national interest" in a diverse officer corps requires race-conscious admission policies for officer training programs.

The beauty of their friend-of-the-court argument comes partially from history. The generals remember the bad old days. In the 1970s, they wrote, "African-American troops, who rarely saw members of their own race in command positions, lost confidence in the military as an institution."

Over time, a variety of race-conscious programs to add minorities to the academies made the military not only a more integrated fighting force but also a more effective one. In short, the mission of national security depended on the admission of minorities.

I realize that the service academies are not yet paragons of equality. Look at the recent sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy. But these friends of the court make the most effective case. They look at programs to encourage minorities not as remedial gifts but as missionary work. They aren't just focused on what they do for individuals but what we want for institutions and societies.

This offers something of an alternative way to restructure the long, contentious fight over affirmative action.

Remember what Jennifer Gratz, one of the plaintiffs, said when she opened her rejection letter from Michigan? "It was immediate that the racial issue came to mind." Immediate? Harvard Law School's Lani Guinier notes how "race functions as an explanation for why Gratz didn't realize her dream. Race is much more convenient than individual failure."

What if the fierce struggle over a limited resource were redefined as a discussion about the mission of a university or public investment in higher education itself?

Universities have trouble defining and redefining their mission.

So far, the Bush administration has given its seal of approval only to programs such as the one in Texas, which guarantees the top 10 percent of high school graduates a slot in one of the state schools. This is an intriguing experiment, but the Lone Star state doesn't have the lone solution. Nor is this a reason to overturn Michigan's careful balancing act.

What if, as Ms. Guinier suggests, the universities did a better job figuring out their social purpose and structuring their acceptances to fulfill it? Wouldn't that be a better argument to make not only before the Supreme Court , but before the court of public opinion?

Missions and admission. To see them in lock step, follow the generals.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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