State Committee Eyes Affirmative Action

Tom Sheehan, LaCrosse Tribune (Wisc.), October 05, 2006

Madison—Military veterans without disabilities could be the first to lose ground in government hiring, contracting and university admissions if affirmative action programs are dismantled, a nationally recognized employment law expert told members of a legislative committee Wednesday.

White male veterans historically have gained most from affirmative-action programs that now may be threatened by a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding admission policies at the University of Michigan, said Robert Gregg, a Madison attorney.

The court invalidated the University of Michigan’s undergraduate affirmative-action criteria that gave “points” for race in the admission process. The decision could jeopardize a point system used to help veterans in testing for state civil service jobs in Wisconsin, for example, Gregg said.

Gregg, who is white, said the point system aimed at veterans helped launch his career and that affirmative action “helps everyone” by ensuring equal access to opportunity in the hiring process. Without affirmative action, hiring decisions largely would be based on favoritism, he said.

Gregg is on a special Legislative Council committee studying the effects and effectiveness of affirmative action in Wisconsin. The committee met for the first time Wednesday at the Capitol but not without accusations of partisanship and hair-splitting debate over the definitions of terms such as “culture” and “diversity.”

Committee chairman Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, questioned state administration and university officials about hiring and admissions policies, which he said seem highly subjective. He asked UW System officials to provide a list of items that give applicants a chance to “jump up in the queue” in admissions.

UW System schools don’t assign “points” for race, although race is one factor among many considered in admissions, said Margaret Lewis, System associate vice president for state relations. Admission standards vary by campus, but academic performance is paramount in all cases, Lewis said.

The UW System is obligated by state and federal law to encourage diversity, and $700 million in federal grants could be at risk if federal standards are not met, said UW System General Counsel Patricia Brady, who testified before the committee.

Legislative Council study committee meetings typically are subdued affairs. But Wednesday’s meeting seemed politically charged, as UW System admission policies have become a hot topic in the race between Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and Republican challenger Mark Green.

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