In a renewed assault on the University of California's ban on affirmative action in student admissions, two civil rights groups filed a formal complaint Friday aimed at retaining some preferences for women and minority applicants to its law, medical and other graduate schools.
Spinning a novel and complex argument, the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor seeks to tie graduate school admissions to the university's obligations to follow equal opportunity hiring rules as a federal contractor.
The reasoning is that because the schools draw many employees from the ranks of graduate students, they will be unable to have a diverse work force without a diverse student body.
"Our argument is that many of the university's employment decisions are influenced by admissions to graduate and professional schools," said Thomas A. Saenz of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"When you admit a grad student, you are effectively hiring that person to be a research assistant, a student teacher or a reader."
As the recipient of $1.3 billion a year in federal contracts, the university has violated its obligation as a federal contractor, the complaint argues.
The complaint asks the Labor Department to take immediate steps to halt this year's graduate admissions process, which is poised to select about 9,600 students for UC's five medical schools, three law schools and 600 other graduate programs.
"Unless restrained from conducting its admission system in the absence of an affirmative action program, the UC will operate a program for graduate student employment that discriminates against minorities and women," the complaint concludes.
But Susan Thomas, a UC attorney, said officials believe the new graduate admissions policy does not run afoul of any federal rules. For the first time in years, admissions officers have been instructed to review graduate school applicants without considering race or gender.
"As we implemented the regents decision on affirmative action, we did a very careful review of our commitments as a federal contractor to make sure our programs were in complete compliance," she said.
The UC regents have also decided to bar the consideration of race, gender and ethnicity in undergraduate admission. But the ending of affirmative action in undergraduate admissions is not scheduled to be phased in until next year.
In addition, university officials are closely watching the court fight over Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action ballot measure recently passed by California voters.
The civil rights attorneys seeking to continue affirmative action in graduate admissions said they were encouraged by the Clinton administration's decision to join the legal attack on Proposition 209.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund joined MALDEF in filing the complaint Friday with the Labor Department's Office of Contract Compliance Programs in San Francisco.
Helen H. Haase, the office's regional director, said she is intrigued with the unconventional argument, but is not sure if her office will have jurisdiction.
"It is a novel issue and one that we will have to get a legal opinion on from our attorneys before we proceed," Haase said. "It is going to be a question of whether students are considered as employees, as well. As far as I now, it is not an issue that the agency has looked at before."
The Office of Contract Compliance Programs was set up to enforce an order by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 that federal contractors have affirmative action programs to ensure equal opportunity for women, minorities and workers with disabilities.
Haase said her office periodically has reviewed workplaces in the UC system. About two years ago, her office found discrimination at UC San Diego and won $650,000 in back pay for the affected workers.
If her agency pursues Friday's complaint and finds the university system lacking, it could require UC officials to adopt an affirmative action plan, or eventually move to disqualify the university as a federal contractor.