The Supreme Court's Wise Decision

Corporate America won a big victory with the U.S. Supreme Court decision endorsing affirmative action in higher education. Indeed, it appears that the amicus briefs written by dozens of companies arguing for the concrete benefits that diversity brings to business played a significant role in persuading Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to throw her swing vote behind the 5-4 decision. The court also showed considerable moderation in saying that universities should ensure racial diversity by evaluating applications individually rather than resorting to quantitative measures that smacked of quota systems. This is precisely where America stands at the moment. Polls show most people feel it is right to give disadvantaged people a break, but not to automatically give them a pass by using quotas. If this appears to some to be contradictory and ambiguous, so be it. It is a pragmatic position that can work in the real world.

Globalization and the changing ethnic composition of America led most corporations to embrace diversity years ago. To understand the cultural markets in which they do business, and to communicate with customers, suppliers, and their own changing workforce, managers have implemented affirmative-action and diversity programs. The Supreme Court decision legitimizes and reinforces this action, and keeps open a key pipeline supplying qualified, well-educated minorities to the ranks of U.S. companies. Even so, the decision challenges managers to improve their own efforts. While the complexion of Corporate America today is different than it was two decades ago, there are still woefully few African Americans and Hispanics in the top tiers of most companies.

Corporate America clearly has a stake in a Supreme Court that is pragmatically, not ideologically, conservative. Legal fundamentalists on the court have often voted against important business interests. They voted against federal preemption of state laws and, had they won, it could have balkanized America's single, huge market. Strict constructionalists also tend to see spam as free speech and are prone to oppose any curbs on it. They would also tend to disallow federal ceilings on punitive damages and stop tort reform.

Two Supreme Court justices who just voted to affirm racial diversity in America may soon be stepping down. Replacing the 73-year-old Justice O'Connor and the 83-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens with pragmatists rather than ideologues is in the interest of Corporate America. An MBA President, who himself was a businessman, should take these interests seriously.

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