Utah Legislature: Lawmaker proposes ending affirmative action in higher education

Published: Friday, Feb. 12 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers are considering a resolution that would call for a constitutional amendment that could effectively end affirmative action and "preferential treatment" in state agencies and higher education.

Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, is proposing legislation that would forbid state agencies, contractors, universities and colleges from providing preference based on race or sex.

Under the proposed HJR24, state entities "may not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin with respect to public employment, public education, or public contracting."

Federal law, such as Title IX, would still trump any state amendment, and the law would not apply to private businesses or schools, except those that contract with the state, Oda said.

Americans across the country are pushing back against affirmative action, he said.

"This is a nationwide movement, and it's taking off like wildfire," he said.

At the House Republican caucus Thursday, Oda was joined by African-American activist Ward Connerly, who has helped pass similar measures in other states, including California, Washington, Nebraska and Michigan.

Connerly argued that impediments to minorities have disappeared over the years.

"Regardless of whence you came, you have a pretty good shot," he said. "Skin color is not one of the impediments that stand in people's way."

Affirmative action and other preferential policies "presuppose that minorities are disadvantaged by definition and whites are privileged by definition," Connerly said.

Connerly has written books and led campaigns against affirmative action around the country.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who plans to sponsor the bill if it makes it to the Senate, called Connerly "totally politically incorrect" and a "great crusader fighting against affirmative action, quotas and discrimination."

Fellow activist Jennifer Gratz, a former student who sued the University of Michigan over its preferential policies, accompanied Connerly.

"The government is engineering diversity through preferences," she said. "Government should simply not be in that business."

The resolution provides for undefined exceptions for jobs requiring a member of a specific sex.

Oda and Connerly said the goal is to create a "color blind" rather than "diverse" government.

"The government should not make distinctions; the time has come to move on," Connerly said.

An American Civil Liberties Union of Utah representative said that because the legislation has just been proposed, the group has yet to take a stance on it.

The bill's proponents, however, argue that preferential policies denigrate minorities by implying that they need help to succeed.

"We don't need a hand up," Connerly said. "We just expect to not be discriminated against."

University of Utah Office for Equity and Diversity communication director Colleen Casto said it is not yet clear how the resolution, if accepted, might affect diversity efforts at the university. Scholarships awarded according to race are already illegal.

Oda and Dayton said Republican leaders gave the proposal a thumbs up.

Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he believes the GOP caucus will back the proposed amendment after hearing a presentation on it Thursday.

"There was a general feeling that this is going to be supported, and I'm sure that it is going to be moving forward," Niederhauser said, adding he personally agrees with its intent.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, Utah voters would need to approve the bill in November for it to become law.

To read the resolution, go to le.utah.gov/~2010/htmdoc/hbillhtm/hjr024.htm.

Contributing: Art Raymond, Lisa Riley Roche

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com

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