Last Sept. 11, President Bush repeated a now-familiar call for solidarity, urging Americans “to grieve together, to stand together, to serve each other and our country. The duty we have been given,” he said, “defending America and our freedom, is also a privilege we share.”
The call of that duty and privilege has even been felt at the nation’s leading colleges, where the decades-old gulf between the Ivy League and the armed services finally seemed to be closing this year. But a misguided decision by the Bush Administration threatens that fragile new bond at just the moment when it would be a welcome development for the country.
Yale and many other law schools have longstanding rules barring military recruiters from their official career forums because the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays and lesbians conflicts with their nondiscrimination codes. But on Monday, Yale Law School announced that it will bow to federal pressure and admit recruiters from the Judge Advocate General corps to join its career placement program this fall. Harvard made an identical move last month. The decisions by Yale and Harvard mean that most other holdouts are likely to follow suit.
On the face of it, this might seem like a welcome change — with an invasion of Iraq coming on, the military needs all the talent it can find. But if bolstering its brain trust was the reason for pressuring the universities, the Defense Department couldn’t have picked a worse strategy.
Consider the stick the administration used: it threatened to use a federal provision called the Solomon Amendment to withhold all federal funds from the schools unless they complied — in Yale’s case, more than $300 million. The amendment passed Congress in 1996 but was not seriously enforced under President Clinton, and many law schools were permitted to give military recruiters informal access to students without officially endorsing their presence. But under President Bush, the military wants to foreclose even that face-saving compromise.
Only a miniscule share of the money in question has anything to do with law schools. The bulk of it goes to medical research: funding for cancer research, public health, even bioterrorism prevention. In other words, Washington threatened to withhold dollars for cancer patients to force Yale to compromise on its core values.
For decades, equality of opportunity has been a bedrock belief at law schools like ours. Nothing could be clearer: students should have the same chance to excel or fail, to rise on their merits, to compete for jobs regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation. This isn’t just an academic exercise — it’s the guiding force behind the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the laws and the principle that gives America its moral standing in the world.
And yet the military’s decision wouldn’t be so painful if it weren’t so completely baseless. The Bush Administration has chosen to antagonize law schools over an issue that is symbolic at best — military recruiters already enjoy direct access to law students and free meeting space on our campuses. All they are gaining is a slot in the schools’ official recruitment programs, which take place at hotels off-site. In practice, all that’s at stake is the chance to meet with prospective recruits not in a law school seminar room, but around a conference table at the Holiday Inn.
So what the military buys with its medical research hardball is a marginal increase in convenience and the grudging imprimatur of a few Ivy League professors. What it will lose is more significant: the newfound trust and goodwill of those professors’ students. Heterosexual Yale students have been more open to careers in the armed forces than they have been in years. At precisely this moment, the military has chosen to remind them of the hostility and discrimination that made them wary all along. (Whether or not you think “don’t ask, don’t tell” is justifiable, arguments about collective showers and crowded bunks make no sense when applied to military lawyers.) The loss of straight students who will refuse to interview because of the military’s intransigence will outweigh any potential gain in recruits.
Which is a shame, since the Ivies and the Pentagon need each other more than ever. At Yale we could stand to shed some of our ivory-tower elitism, and the military desperately needs all the bright young minds it can get. President Bush couldn’t be more right — after Sept. 11 and facing new battles ahead, Americans are all in this fight together. It’s all the more unfortunate that his administration’s pressure tactics will likely drive us further apart.
Adam A. Sofen is a first-year student at the Yale Law School.