Yale Law School came under fire this week for its controversial role in the national debate over the Solomon Amendment, which denies federal funding to educational institutions that restrict access to government recruiters. The school’s refusal to support the recruiting efforts of the military’s Judge Advocate General program — which, in accord with the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation — and its ongoing legal battle over the amendment stand as a testament to Yale’s commitment to equality.
But beyond this particular battle, the Solomon debate prompts us to examine the extent to which the government should be able to influence educational institutions by threatening to withhold federal funding. With this in mind, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s recently-released petition decrying the University’s position as hypocritical demands a strong response. ACTA’s biased and unfounded criticism of Yale and other universities distorts the facts of the case and advances a dangerous interpretation of the government’s authority to meddle in private universities’ affairs.
An injunction won by Law School faculty and students in U.S. District Court prevents the government from withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from Yale, pending a Supreme Court hearing. Last month, Harvard Law School caved in to the Department of Defense, allowing JAG recruiters back on campus to avoid losing the government’s financial contributions.
Yale’s pending court case is reason enough to justify its continuing refusal to assist with JAG recruiting. The word “assist” here is key, since the University does not prevent JAG recruiters from contacting students — it simply does not provide campus resources to facilitate these activities. The District Court’s favorable decision provides an unequivocal legal and ethical mandate for Yale to maintain this policy and proceed with its legal challenge to the amendment.
More fundamentally, allegations of University hypocrisy reflect a seriously flawed perception of the nature of the government’s relationship with educational institutions. Due to its vast scope and particular identity, the government is different from a private investor. While ethical opposition to a company’s use of sweatshops, for example, might dissuade the University from accepting its contributions, there is no hypocrisy in accepting wide-ranging funds from myriad federal agencies while opposing a policy employed by a subsidiary of a single federal department.
Federal funds serve as the backbone of research across a vast spectrum of fields, some of which provide direct applications to national interests ranging from health to defense. Few research institutions can afford to field such programs without these funds.
If the government had the authority to leverage federal financing and dictate university policies, private academic institutions would become direct subjects of those in political power. Higher education in the United States would be far weaker if schools like Yale did not fight to ensure that academia retains its freedom and independence.