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John Florez: Affirmative action gets refocused

Published: Saturday, June 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

People supporting the University of Texas rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. The Supreme Court is taking up a challenge to a University of Texas program that considers race in some college admissions. The case could produce new limits on affirmative action at universities, or roll it back entirely.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

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"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind ... with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times." — Thomas Jefferson.

Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the affirmative action policies of colleges and universities regarding student admissions. It gives us a chance to renew our commitment to equal opportunity for today's circumstances. It also reaffirmed educational diversity as being important. The Supreme Court's decision shows the foresight of our forefathers in the design of our government. Jefferson said it well.

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination against minorities was rampant; the law prohibited discrimination in employment and in public accommodations. It prohibited preferential treatment. Affirmative action as a program was unknown until Richard Nixon, then vice president for President Eisenhower, coined the phrase when he asked federal contractors to take "voluntary" affirmative action to employ more minorities.

The only mention of affirmative action in federal laws is found in the Executive Order 11246 signed in 1965 by President Johnson which states, "Take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin." In 1967 "sex" was added with Executive Order 11375. It places no requirement for preferential treatment, only to remove illegal barriers. Proof of compliance only required "a good faith effort" to comply. Affirmative action applied to employment by federal contractors, not to students in higher education. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act protected individuals from discrimination in programs and activities, which included public institutions. There was no requirement for affirmative action.

Later, especially under President Carter's administration, the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor began establishing federal regulations that, in practice, forced universities with federal contracts to apply affirmative action principles in student admission. Universities were eager to comply since they understood the public interest in having a diverse faculty and an education that would prepare students to succeed in a changing world. However, the overreach of the compliance agencies created public backlash, instead of advancing opportunities for minorities.

The new digital revolution now has created a flat world where we are all connected to each other. It creates an environment for innovation to flourish since it allows people from diverse backgrounds to collaborate, and bring new eyes to problem solving. Ideas build upon each other to produce innovative solutions. While there are those who despair over the court's requiring universities to apply stricter standards in minority admissions, it gives universities impetus to promote diversity in its policies.

Our system of government was designed to accommodate change while maintaining common values upon which it was founded. The Supreme Court, in reaffirming an interest in promoting educational diversity, has given new impetus for universities and the general public to move our nation forward in today's global economy.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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