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Case Sparks Recruitment Debate Over Race

Some fear that a ruling against affirmative action may cut diversity at military academies.

June 22, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When the Bush administration joined a lawsuit this year challenging affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan, a chorus of opposition rose unexpectedly from a coalition of prominent retired military leaders.

They argued that a decision invalidating affirmative action policies would cripple minority officer recruitment programs at America's service academies. Foes of affirmative action responded that the use of race as a basis for admissions by any school program was unconstitutional, and said the military could find new ways to achieve diversity.

Now, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue a potentially momentous ruling in the case this week, the military ramifications have sparked debate over the role of race in the recruitment and training of minority officers.

"I am sure our nation's full commitment to diversity in officer training will continue, even if the court rules against Michigan," said Lawrence Purdy, an attorney who represented two white student plaintiffs in the University of Michigan case. "The courts have spoken very clearly that you simply can't use race to make admissions decisions. You have to find an approach based purely on merit."

Yet strong disagreement has come from retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, as well as three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., Gen. Hugh Shelton and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili. They and other retired military leaders filed a friend-of-the-court brief in January supporting the university's policies, and a key argument was that racial diversity in the officer corps maintains the efficiency of America's armed forces.

"Compelling considerations of national security and military mission justify the consideration of race in selecting military officers," the brief argued, citing the military's determination to increase the number of minority officers on active duty during the last 40 years. "In the 1960s and '70s, the stark disparity between the racial composition of the rank and file and that of the officer corps fueled a breakdown of order that endangered the military's ability to fulfill its missions."

Nearly 40% of the U.S. military's rank and file are minorities, as are almost 20% of officers on active duty, according to Defense Department statistics. Those numbers have jumped dramatically from the early 1960s, when fewer than 2% of officers were minorities. Much of the gain has come from a policy at the nation's service academies, as well as at Reserve Officer Training Corps programs across the U.S., to seek out and train a growing number of minority officer candidates.

At West Point, for example, more than 15% of the 4,000 students are minorities, including African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Today, there are about 10 times the number of black cadets at the school than there were four decades ago.

Some of West Point's minority cadets are among the nation's top students. But not all of the minority recruits go directly from high school into the academy. Nearly 40% of them spend a year in a Ft. Monmouth, N.J., preparatory school, where they study to improve math and verbal skills. If students improve their skills, they can be admitted to West Point.

"We wouldn't have these [minority] numbers without those programs," said Col. Mike Jones, director of recruiting at West Point. "And we have been very aggressive in going out to find qualified [minority] youngsters.... If we weren't allowed to consider race as part of the recruitment process for individual students, that whole chunk of our program would go away."

Although the court might restrict its ruling to the University of Michigan and the U.S. military academies, some observers fear that a decision against the university will instantly jeopardize the recruitment of minority officer candidates. The ruling is likely to affect all schools that accept public funding, including the academies, they say.

"There has been a judgment made for many years, and across many institutions, that there is a compelling national interest in maintaining an integrated officer corps," said Virginia Seitz, the counsel of record in the brief filed by the former military officials.

"You cannot have a perception of fairness if 40% of the military looks up at an all-white officer corps," she said. "That used to be the situation in this country until there was a conscious effort made to increase the number of minority officer cadets."

The Bush administration did not directly address these concerns when it filed a brief in the University of Michigan case. The litigation was brought by two white women who contend that the university violated their 14th Amendment guarantees of equal protection under the law by refusing them admission, but allowing a set number of minority students with equal or lesser academic credentials to enroll.

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