Commentary: Memo to the Supreme Court: "Diversity Is Good Business"

By Roger O. Crockett

Joseph Dominguez grew up in a blue-collar Cuban enclave of Union City, N.J. From that working-class 'hood, he went on to earn a law degree from Rutgers University, where his admission was clinched thanks to a program for minorities. Now, as an associate general counsel in charge of litigation at Chicago-based energy giant Exelon Corp., he brings new insight to legal issues that vex his white colleagues. For example, Dominguez, 40, often has a better grasp of how a jury made up of minorities might react to the company's defense in a trial. "He comes at problems in a way that I wouldn't have thought of on my own, which enhances my ability to do my job," says his boss, Exelon General Counsel Randall E. Mehrberg.

It's stories like this that help explain why more than 30 large corporations are sticking out their necks to support affirmative action in a pivotal case to be reviewed in the spring by the U.S. Supreme Court. For the first time since 1978, the high court has taken up a challenge to racial diversity programs in higher education in a pair of cases involving the University of Michigan. The Bush Administration is poised to weigh in, opposing the school's right to consider race in its admission process. But the companies, including Exelon, Microsoft, Bank One, General Motors, and Steelcase, plan to advocate for the defense with a new brief in mid-February.

The Administration and the justices should take heed of Corporate America's argument. These corporate chieftains are speaking out about such a hot-button social issue because they believe that as minorities' share of the U.S. population has mounted, diversity has become a critical workforce requirement. The nation's colleges are an essential part of the pipeline that feeds new hires to large companies. On a campus where diversity thrives, students develop an understanding of different cultures. That enables them, as tomorrow's business leaders, to "appeal to a variety of consumers" and work with colleagues and clientele from many ethnic backgrounds, the companies argued in their amicus brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals. It also creates a more competitive workforce that can "facilitate unique and creative approaches to problem-solving," the brief said. Simply put, says Bank One Corp. Chief Legal Officer Christine A. Edwards, "diversity is good business."

In its last major ruling on the issue, in the 1978 Bakke case, the high court said that strict racial quotas violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But the court did uphold colleges' right to pursue diversity by considering race as one "plus factor" among others. Now, in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, rejected white students have challenged the flexible approach colleges have developed over the past 24 years. Their argument: that any form of racial preference violates their rights to equal protection, even if it's just one factor in the admissions decision.

The university's defense is that diversity is a "compelling state interest" and therefore outweighs the individual rights of white applicants. This is a powerful argument. The societal point of a college education isn't just to produce the smartest graduates. It's also to equip citizens with the skills required to thrive in a competitive environment. Race is a legitimate factor to consider, along with grades, test scores, and extracurricular achievement. It's part of the template that shapes an individual, qualifying the way he or she approaches problems, conceives ideas, and communicates. "A diverse college environment is a much better setting for preparing graduates for life in business," says Steelcase Inc. CEO James P. Hackett.

The court should ponder the corporate view carefully against competing voices. If it doesn't, business leaders rightly worry that affirmative action plans could be curtailed further--or even killed. The outcome would be a smaller supply of minority college grads, which would damage the economy and society alike.

Crockett covers social issues from Chicago.

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