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A good argument for affirmative action

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


Above the high-toned and often hypocritical arguments opposing affirmative action in college admissions, a long-overdue revolution is under way at many of the nation's major universities.

At the core of this new movement are common sense and hard reality, the two ingredients that have been sorely missing in the mean-spirited debate over affirmative action in this conservative era. And the University of Michigan, supported by several Fortune 500 companies, is at ground zero of the movement.

Michigan is boldly defending its affirmative efforts against two lawsuits aimed at outlawing race as a consideration in admissions at the undergraduate level and in the law school. What is different at Michigan, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, is that corporate America has jumped into the fray by filing briefs on the university's behalf. The briefs outline the companies' desire and need for greater diversity in the workplace and argue that, like their private counterparts, public universities are at the top end of guaranteeing such diversity.

The Chronicle states that many companies, including Bank One, Dow Chemical, Eli Lilly, General Mills, KPMG, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Texaco, Hewlett-Packard, Intel Corp., Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, are raising their philanthropic support for schools that have consistently supplied them with black, Hispanic and American Indian employees. Even more, many of these companies are paying the full amount for scholarships, mentoring and internships for students who may become full-time employees. In other instances, the universities foot part of the bill, which critics of affirmative action argue is unconstitutional.

One positive result is that the universities now have greater reason to recruit minorities. Unlike in the recent past, when most institutions of higher education saw themselves as ivory towers of theory and intellectuality, many now consider supplying specific companies with minority recruits to be one of their key missions.

In our highly competitive global economy, American companies increasingly are being forced to recruit overseas. For this reason alone, assisting American minorities and training them at our universities make perfect sense in the real world. This collaborative effort, although symbiotic, is especially important in fields such as engineering, the sciences and business, where companies are desperate for minorities.

University officials acknowledge that they are not operating solely from higher principles of social and economic justice. "We, and all colleges, are under pressure by industry to increase diversity," Stephen W. Director, dean of the College of Engineering at the Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, told the Chronicle. "We constantly hear from companies that they appreciate what we have done, and would like to see more."

Bob Jerich, a spokesman for Lucent Technologies, is unequivocal in an interview with the Chronicle: "It is important to understand that diversity is really a critical piece of our overall business strategy. "As a global company, we really feel that our employee body needs to reflect the diversity of our markets and customers."

Many small to large non-profit groups, such as Inroads, the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management and the National Consortium for Graduate Degees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, have made a science of matching industry with institutions of higher education that provide recruits. Most of these organizations offer minority students -- with 3.0 grade-point averages -- fellowships and match them with companies that will give them paid internships, mentoring and offers of permanent employment.

The Chronicle states that Inroads, for example, with a budget of $30-million and 50 branches in the United States, recruits "at about 600 colleges and has more than 7,000 interns paired with about 900 corporate clients, who pay the organization an annual sponsorship fee for every intern it provides."

The companies, many facing labor shortages, are especially happy with the work of the non-profits because the overwhelming majority of the interns become full-time, experienced employees. Intel, for instance, told the Chronicle that about 70 percent of their scholarship recipients become full-timers.

In addition to money, the universities get an added benefit for pairing minorities and corporations: The minorities in the programs become highly motivated and stay in school. Hewlett-Packard reports that 80 percent of its scholarship recipients remain in college as of their junior year. The Chronicle states that this is a retention rate "more than double that of black and Hispanic students overall."

Other firms that give such scholarships also report exceptionally high retention rates among minority student recipients.

If the lawsuits against Michigan prevail, much of the corporate money pouring in there, and elsewhere, will dry up because the school shares some of the cost of the scholarships for minorities. The bottom line is that affirmative action (diversity) in college admissions, no matter how vociferously conservatives bash it, is good for corporate America. It is good for our institutions of higher learning. It is good for the economy. It is good for the nation.

This is not high-blown theory; it is common sense and hard reality.

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