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
"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
"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
That education, in turn, paves the way for business success, the
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