The Yale administration routinely incurs criticism for failing to assume a leadership role among prestigious universities. On issues ranging from student loans to environmental policy, undergraduates and others have reproached the University for acting slowly, following the crowd, or simply ignoring the problem.

Last week, the administration took a significant step toward ridding itself of that reputation, changing a destructive policy regarding the distribution of financial aid.

Yale has decided to overlook the question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, that asks if the applicant has been convicted of a drug offense. Because of an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1998, commonly known as the Drug Free Student Aid Provision, answering “yes” to that question prevents a student from receiving aid from the federal government.

In the past, an affirmation would also deny access to aid from Yale, for the University required that a student qualify for federal aid to be eligible for its aid. Now it will grant rehabilitation, a federally imposed prerequisite for the reinstating of aid, through University Health Services. During that program, Yale will grant provisional financial aid, replacing federal aid as well as aid from the University. Yale has now courageously displayed its belief that this legislation is morally wrong and practically unnecessary.

The law uses education as a weapon, denying the right to learn in retribution for perhaps the most minor of crimes. Though the law frequently deprives criminals of certain rights, the right to an education should not be one of them. In fact, to withhold knowledge is counterproductive, for access to education is one of the best solutions to many of society’s problems.

The statute is also gratuitous, for numerous other means of challenging drug abuse exist, and each of them is far more productive and ethical than the penalty at hand. Fines, suspensions and expulsions are all within the scope of the law and the University, and because none of these options permanently derail one’s education, they are less objectionable.

Congress created this problem, but it will not fix it. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank’s attempt to repeal the law has been repeatedly defeated in committee, and the Higher Education Act will not be reassessed until 2004.

It is not politically expedient for our representatives to oppose this legislation. Because few legislators wish to seem “soft on drugs,” we cannot count on the assistance of elected officials. Thus it falls to universities, traditional strongholds of rational thought and debate, to give this issue the thorough discussion it deserves.

On Feb. 27, the Yale College Council passed a resolution on this subject. It called for the administration to supplement lost financial aid, including need-based aid from other sources, with aid from the University. I applaud the administration for honoring that proposal.

If Yale were to announce this decision publicly — as it should proudly do — national attention would focus on the unreasonable nature of this law, and subsequent pressure on Congress might lead to a repeal. Yale can afford to cover the costs of this policy change, but many less well-funded colleges and universities can only hope for a repeal.

Unfortunately, though it is front-page material, this decision will not be announced in any official press release. Somewhat understandably, the University is less than eager to publicly announce this policy change. Why the silence? The regrettable association between this amendment and the drug war makes those who abandon it appear to be advocating the legalization of drug use. Like our politicians, Yale does not want to be accused of negligence in its regulations on illegal substances.

In spite of its lack of publicity, this change will have a giant effect on higher education. University President Richard Levin and Director of Financial Aid Myra Smith, among others, deserve praise for their adherence to their principles in the face of such potential criticism.

According to the administration, the Drug Free Student Aid Provision has yet to affect any Yale students. But it will adversely affect 45,000 other students nationwide in this year alone.

Though I believe that Yale would best fulfill its leadership role by publicly announcing its decision, I thank the administration for taking this necessary step. I trust that publicizing this issue through means other than the Office of Public Affairs will demonstrate that students are not the only ones who see the injustice of this law.

Andrew Allison is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. He is a representative on the Yale College Council.