March 10, 2006

Sun Speaks with ACLU President

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Before her talk Thursday night on religion’s role in government, Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke with The Sun about affirmative action, Title IX and the War on Drugs.

The Sun: What is the ACLU’s position on affirmative action?

Nadine Strossen: The ACLU very strongly supports affirmative action. We were directly involved in the very recent and important case that the Supreme Court decided from the University of Michigan. We represented parents and students of African American, Mexican American and other minority groups in support of affirmative action at that university. Because official policies of discrimination, exclusion and segregation were very recent, their impact is still ongoing.

For example, one of the major factors considered in undergraduate admissions is whether you have family members who have graduated from the university. Not surprisingly, racial minorities do not have as many relatives who have graduated from the university, so that was a discriminatory factor.

A preference was also given to applicants from the high schools of past University of Michigan students. Given discrimination in funding and resources on the basis of poverty, which unfortunately correlates with race, most of the minority students were going to high schools which simply did not have that many alumni that got into the University of Michigan, creating a vicious cycle. A lot of people tend to forget this and think that we have a level playing field now.

We also very much support the rationale that the Supreme Court based its ruling on: diversity in education provides preparation for working in a multicultural society and economy. I think what’s really interesting how this was so strongly supported by the business community in Michigan, which includes a lot of multinational countries.

Anyway, the point that I’m making is a lot of people think affirmative action is giving this special treatment and privilege, but it really is to counter what is otherwise negative action. In other words there is an extra impediment that really attaches to racial status, so affirmative action is a very necessary remedy.

If you look at admissions policies, to the best of my knowledge, essentially all colleges, universities and law schools are trying to do the same thing. They want a diverse student body, diverse in every way. Aspects of diversity certainly include socio-economic status, as well as geography, extra circular activities, talents, interests and everything. However, to say that universities can look at every single thing about an applicant but an applicants race, given how important that continues to be in our society, an unfortunate reality, would suggest that your experiences and opportunities are not profoundly affected by the color of your skin, [which isn’t true]. To say that’s the only thing that can’t be looked at and feed into this consideration of diversity, I think is not helpful from an educational perspective, and certainly is not helpful from the perspective of advancing equality and tolerance.

The Sun: How do you feel about Title IX?

Strossen: I think it’s been extremely significant – I don’t know anyone who disagrees with what a profound revolution [this caused] in the involvement of women in athletics. There is just [a] night and day [difference] between my generation and what came after. Girls just were not expected to have any interest in or spend any time in athletics or in sports, and that has changed completely. I think that’s so important, not only for the relatively few who make it onto varsity teams, but just for everybody to treat sports as an important aspect of being a happy and healthy human being. Literally half the human race was shut out of those opportunities or not encouraged, and Title IX just revolutionized that.

The Sun: I think almost everyone would agree that title IX has been very successful in improving opportunities for women in sports, but do you think that it’s still necessary when you look at the effect it is having on men’s tennis programs and men’s wrestling programs? In order to comply with title IX while maintaining a competitive football program, many smaller men’s sports are losing funding or being cancelled all together.

Strossen: Right. Well, there are multiple ways of satisfying the statute and one is to just make sure that there are equal opportunities for women and for men. One can always satisfy a requirement to treat two groups equally by treating both in the manner that either the preferred group was treated or the disfavored group was treated. And one would hope that there would be a ratcheting up for both women and men rather than a ratcheting down.

Affirmative Action still needs to be in place. I still see horror stories from various campuses were women really are treated as second class citizens. I’m sure in some schools it may be less necessary than others, but you need to have it. The mere fact that the law is on the books really does have a deterrent effect to prevent discrimination that would otherwise occur.

The Sun: You said you hoped there would be a ratcheting up but isn’t the funding of college athletics zero sum? If there is a certain amount of money to be spent on athletics and you increase spending on women’s athletics, then men’s athletics will losing funding.

Strossen: First of all, it is not a zero sum game in that there is no law saying this is the maximum amount that has to be spent on sports. It’s also a budgetary decision that’s made by the university and the athletic director as to why so much money go into sports that only a few students can participate in. They must consider which sports alumni love and the games people love to go. These are the kinds of budgetary decisions that executives have to make all the time. If they really cared about opportunities for every student, including students participating in sports that might not be the big glamorous sports in terms of University fame and alumni support, the University should show some concern for these students. I don’t think you should blame Title IX; in fact, you are just talking about another kind of discrimination. Athletics which are not as glamorous, which don’t draw the crowds, aren’t getting as much funding as they should.

The Sun: What is your opinion on the decriminalization of drugs?

Strossen: Completely in favor. I and the ACLU have always taken the position that, at least for adults – at least for mature, consenting individuals – what they do with their own bodies is there own business and none of the government’s business. Putting that aside, this war on drugs has really been a war on constitutional rights, it has been used to create drug exceptions to every provision in the Bill of Rights, it has been used to foment a war on racial minorities, because the enforcement of the drug laws … is very disproportionate on the basis of race. That’s why we have an exploding prison population and that unfortunately involves one third of all African-American men between the ages of 20 and 30 that are in some phase of the correctional system and it has been absolutely horrendous for their families and communities.

Archived article by Ross Anderson
Sun Contributor