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 United States 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 some gays and lesbians from the ranks under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy .
The decision drew immediate fire. Irate alumni bombarded the dean's office with complaints. Incensed veterans proclaimed themselves insulted. Indignant letters filled the paper, calling the move "ludicrous," "disgraceful" and "downright anti-American." Even the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board, on most issues proudly liberal, declared that the faculty had gone too far.
The pressure was tremendous. And this 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, he declared, now would be open to graduates entering the military.
The response has been more anger.
In a debate shadowed by the horror of Sept. 11, 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. Not with a war on terrorism to be won.
Some faculty are even fearful of speaking on the record, lest they alienate their colleagues on the bitterly divided campus.
Aftershocks of Sept. 11 "have colored this debate in a really unfortunate way," said second-year student T.J. Hill, president of Outlaw, the school's gay and lesbian organization.
The fault lines run like this:
Those who back the dean argue the need to treat all students equally, whether they go to work for the Sierra Club, the district attorney or the Army. 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, 32, 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."
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 law professor Richard Kuhns. Excluding the military from the program, he said, would have been "an important, if small, step making the point that discrimination is wrong."
The debate is, in many ways, a rerun. Last year, for the first time in a decade, the law school allowed the military to recruit on campus--over the fierce protests of many students and faculty. Administrators said then that they had no choice: A new federal law threatened to yank funds from any university that blocked the Defense Department from recruiting.
This time around, there was a choice. But it was more about symbolism than substance.
On average, just 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.