Affirmative Action's Unlikely Ally ; Big Business Lends Support to University of Michigan as It Faces Two Reverse-Discrimination Lawsuits by Whites

Article excerpt

It used to be that the push to make up for the sins of discrimination came mainly from liberal idealists and political activists - those who mounted the civil rights barricades in the 1960s and '70s.

Affirmative action became their tool of choice by which schools, government agencies, and other organizations could achieve a racial and gender balance more nearly reflective of society as a whole.

Today, that effort has gained new and perhaps surprising support from hard-nosed business executives traditionally focused on profit- and-loss statements to the exclusion of nearly all else.

Twenty leading corporations recently went on record supporting the University of Michigan in a high-profile legal battle to preserve affirmative action.

The move throws economic and political clout behind affirmative action at a time when such programs are increasingly challenged in courts and ballot referendums.

Prompting the corporate activism, CEOs say, is a domestic population that is growing more diverse, as well as a global economy in which national boundaries are increasingly irrelevant. Corporate leaders say they need a multicultural workforce if they are to succeed worldwide. And the place to start, say many executives, is the colleges and universities where new employees are recruited.

"Without a strong commitment to diversity from the world's leading academic institutions, it will become more and more difficult for multinational corporations to compete at the global level," says James Hackett, chief executive officer of Steelcase Inc. a maker of office furniture in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The University of Michigan faces two separate lawsuits in which whites, denied admission to the university's undergraduate and law school programs, allege the institution discriminated against them by admitting less-qualified minorities.

But in their legal brief supporting the university, 20 Fortune 500 companies argue that affirmative action - specific diversity goals and the steps to meet them - is a building block of good education.

"It is essential that [students] be educated in an environment where they are exposed to diverse ideas, perspectives and interactions," say the companies, which include such well-known names as Microsoft, Intel, Kellogg, Texaco, Kodak, and Dow Chemical.

That education, in turn, paves the way for business success, the firms assert.

More diversity, more innovation

"Diversity is ... a fundamental business strategy," says A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, one of the companies supporting the university. "Our success depends entirely on our ability to understand these diverse consumers' needs and to work effectively with customers and suppliers around the world."

"All the data I've seen in 30 years of being in business - and all of my personal experience at Procter & Gamble over the last 23 years - convince me that a diverse organization will out-think, out- innovate, and out-perform a homogeneous organization every single time," Mr. Lafley wrote to the company's workforce this month.

In a split decision 22 years ago, the United States Supreme Court held that "the attainment of a diverse student body ... clearly is a constitutionally permissible goal of an institution of higher education." Yet the court in the highly controversial Bakke case also stated that racial quotas were not legal.

Since then, courts in Texas and Georgia have knocked down university affirmative action plans, and voters in California and Washington State have passed ballot measures banning affirmative action in state government (including state institutions of higher learning). …