Forty years ago, University student
Tom Hayden wrote in the Port Huron Statement that a college campus
should be “a potential base and agency in a movement of
social change.”

Eston Bond

For much of the 40 years between then and now, as Michigan
teach-ins helped stop the Vietnam War and student activism made
affirmative action a priority for administrators, Hayden must have
been proud.

Today, it’s easy to look at a campus filling with
corporate synergy and conclude that the revolution is dead. Or if
you really want to hear the triumph of the dollar sign over the
peace sign, listen to the rallying cries of the new student
activism — Down with Unfair Budget Cuts!

But once in a while, we see that the University still can be a
base for social change — as long as the revolution is good
for the bottom line.

The University spent six years defending its admissions policy
in court, arguing that a racially diverse campus leads to a
racially diverse society. Seems like an argument Hayden would
approve of — universities leading the way for a progressive
cause.

But the University didn’t feel promoting equality was a
convincing enough public defense of its policies, so it encouraged
corporate America to argue that diversity was good for business.
Nearly 70 corporations filed briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court
arguing that they need to recruit from diverse graduating
classes.

General Motors, for example, needed minorities to make its cars.
“We make and sell vehicles across the world, and we have to
function with a variety of cultures, a variety of races,”
spokesman Edd Snyder said early last year. “You have to have
people who understand these cultures and races.”

While that’s no doubt true, and the University is right to
show the many benefits of diversity, the argument reveals that
administrators and lawyers think the public will respond better to
civil rights when it’s portrayed as a good business
decision.

This fall, the University is quietly gearing up to fight another
court battle for civil rights, which looks like it will be marked
by similar arguments.

If a majority of Michigan voters support Proposal 2 on Nov. 2,
the state of Michigan must stop all government sponsorship of gay
unions. Its premise is that such partnerships threaten the fragile
bond of marriage whose sanctity has been proudly maintained
throughout the centuries by straight people like Henry VIII, John
Kennedy and Britney Spears.

The proposal would cement a ban on gay marriage by putting it in
the state constitution, but it would do much more. There would be
no chance of Michigan allowing Vermont-style civil unions, which
guarantee gay couples the economic benefits of marriage. And
government entities would no longer be able to recognize same-sex
unions by extending benefits to the partners of gay employees.

The University has vowed to fight the amendment, if it passes,
by continuing to recognize employees’ same-sex unions and
offer a package of benefits to their partners.

“We don’t believe a constitutional amendment that
defines marriage is relevant to our decision about benefits
offerings,” University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said.

The “pro-family” groups supporting the initiative
will surely disagree, probably in court. Six years down the road,
could the Supreme Court be listening to University lawyers explain
why Proposal 2 violates the Constitution’s equal protection
guarantee?

Maybe so, but for now, they are stating their position not in
terms of equality, but in the business-friendly language that
worked so well last time.

“We offer benefits in order to recruit and retain the best
and brightest employees,” Peterson said. “In other
words, the purpose of our benefits package is to keep the best
employees working in Michigan.”

So, supposedly, we’re not looking to make sweeping social
change — we just want our gay employees to stick around.

It’s far from the beacon of light to the world that Hayden
envisioned, but at least the University will take on causes worth
fighting for. If it has to pretend to be fighting for the economy
and GM, so be it.

 

Schrader can be reached at
“mailto:jtschrad@umich.edu”>jtschrad@umich.edu.

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