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American University (AU) law student Mike Triplett says the 20 or so members of the law school’s gay and lesbian student group usually don’t see any reason to meet more than once or twice a month. And that’s just to update the mailing list. “[It’s] such a friendly and positive environment, there’s really no reason to get together,” Triplett says. “It’s not like we’re Catholic [University] or something.”
But Triplett and the Lambda Law Society finally found a cause after the AU faculty voted Sept. 19 to lift a 12-year-old policy banning military recruiters. The school adopted the ban in 1985 to protest the military’s exclusion of gays from service and discriminatory policies like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The faculty, however, didn’t kill the ban because it had suddenly warmed up to the gay-bashing defense establishment. Rather, it succumbed to a new law sponsored by Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.) to cut federal funds, including student financial aid, to schools with so-called “anti-military” policies.
AU was one of 10 schools cited this summer for noncompliance with the Solomon amendment and risked losing over $500,000 from various federally funded aid programs. “Once student-aid money became jeopardized, we felt that basically we were being squeezed,” says Robert D. Dinerstein, the law school’s associate dean of academic affairs. “For the community, we felt it was something we needed to deal with.”
In other words, AU sold out. “We gave in too easily, because they thought there was just no way we would have made up for the money,” says professor James Boyle, who adds that faculty didn’t fully consider fund-raising alternatives before making its decision. “What we really did is, we caved in under time pressure without exploring other options.”
Law school student Ken Wilcox was partying at Ha’ Penny Lion on a recent Friday night when an acquaintance told him his school was at risk of losing funds. “I said, ‘What? I’m part of the student government,’” Wilcox says. “‘I better find out about this.’” Wilcox went to the law school’s library the next day, pulled a July Federal Register from the shelves, and read about the law school’s noncompliance with the Solomon amendment.
Wilcox’s beef with the faculty is that students weren’t immediately informed of the impending sanction, let alone involved in the decision to lift the ban. “I’m very disappointed that they didn’t communicate it to us,” he says. The faculty voted in an emergency meeting before students had a chance to pull together a town meeting, which took place four days after the vote. “All the stomping [at the meeting] wasn’t going to help, because the decision was already made,” Triplett says. “I think faculty sort of work in this shroud of secrecy. They really kept it very quiet.”
But Dinerstein says the faculty had to act fast to beat the Oct. 1 deadline for application for federal funds. “We worked in what was the best combination of acting quickly and responsibly,” says Dinerstein. “We really waited until the absolute last second.” Most faculty members are quick to point out, too, that if any bulldozing went on, it was done at the federal level. The government is the bully, they say, and the AU law school isn’t its only victim. “Everyone agreed the military policy is a scandal and an outrage,” says professor Jamin B. Raskin. “But essentially the government put a gun to our head and threatened to blow away our students. We had very little choice. I don’t think there’s anything noble about sacrificing our students.”
Abandoning your principles isn’t all that pretty, either. The AU faculty, however, has managed to do it with impunity. At the students’ town meeting, for example, Triplett says his group’s stance on the faculty vote was “uniformly opposed.” “Quite frankly, if it involved any other group, faculty wouldn’t have had the gumption to do it,” says Triplett. And faculty members are fond of pointing out that their counterparts at other universities are just as spineless.
Nearly all of the 10 schools cited for noncompliance have changed or are considering changing their nondiscrimination policies, according to Dinerstein. Even schools not included on the government’s summer hit list, such as Georgetown, have lifted their bans to avoid unpleasant correspondence with the feds.
The Solomon amendment has been so effective that the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) rejiggered its nondiscrimination policy following its passage. Prior to the amendment, AALS declined to accredit law schools that allow military recruiters to schmooze with their students. Now that the government is threatening cutoffs, though, AALS member schools that deal with military recruiters are suddenly in good standing, “so long as they take adequate steps to ameliorate the negative effects on the law-school environment,” says Carl Monk, AALS executive director.
The trend toward abandoning nondiscrimination policies for cash is sure to spread, as the strong arm of the government grows. The list of jeopardized federal funds is swelling as Solomon tacks his amendment onto each new appropriations bill that makes its way through the House. Schools that are said to have “antimilitary” policies could now lose funds from not only the Defense department but also from the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. “Solomon is the king of the godfather offer,” says Raskin.
However, Solomon spokesman Bill Teator says the lawmaker never intended to threaten student aid or to drive a wedge between students and faculty. A former marine, Solomon was concerned only with helping recruiters beef up their database of prospective employees and couldn’t stand by idly as they were turned away. “It struck him immediately as wrong,” Teator says.
Instead of confronting the government, AU is now tinkering with feel-good half-measures. Raskin has collected $4,000 in private donations to establish student fellowships with groups aimed at fighting discrimination against gays and lesbians, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lambda Legal Defense. He says he plans to ask law-school faculty and administrators to match the funds. “This strikes me as a more meaningful response than to be the one or two law schools in America to ban recruiters,” Raskin says. “We should fight, but not in a way that brings destruction to both studentsgay and straightwho depend on student aid.”
Administrators and faculty add that the university has planned other “ameliorative actions” to counteract the lifting of the ban, including a task force of students and faculty that will devise ways of protesting discrimination. There’s been talk of passing out fliers about the military’s discrimination on the days of their visits and hosting debates on nondiscrimination policies.
But while administrators are making noise about protests, no amount of campus activism will undo the faculty’s pro-discrimination vote. The school let them down, say gay students, and a bunch of fliers and speeches aren’t going to make up for it. “It’s a real compromise of the environment for lesbian and gay students,” says Kyle Velte, a second-year law student and co-chair of the Lambda Law Society. “I feel like, so you sell me down the river, you feel guilty, and now you’re doing these things for me?” CP