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OUR OPINION: Diversity, yes; quotas, no, in NDSU president search

It would be great if the list of finalists for North Dakota State University's presidency includes women and minorities. But it shouldn't be forced. To require that representation is to set up a quota, and quotas go beyond the consensus Americans...

It would be great if the list of finalists for North Dakota State University's presidency includes women and minorities.

But it shouldn't be forced. To require that representation is to set up a quota, and quotas go beyond the consensus Americans have developed about affirmative action.

Last week, a group of female former North Dakota college leaders wrote a thoughtful letter about this issue. "Not long ago, about half of the presidents and about half of the board members were women," wrote the authors, who include Ellen Chaffee, Sharon Etemad and Pamela Balch, the former presidents of Valley City State University, Lake Region State College and Mayville State University, respectively.

"Now, the only two women in these roles are in their final year of service. The board has appointed white men to the last six presidential vacancies. The governor has not appointed a nonstudent woman to the board for seven years."

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State leaders should "make an explicit commitment to equal opportunity for women and minorities in the selection of board members, members of search committees, consultants, chancellor's staff and university and college presidents," the authors wrote.

"We ask them to take affirmative action to ensure that qualified, competitive women and minorities are among the finalists for any leadership position.

"We ask them to reopen the search when all the finalists are white men."

The authors will get no argument on the first request. An "explicit commitment to equal opportunity" is vital for a successful search.

But the second request goes a step too far. If it called for affirmative action in the recruiting of women and minority applicants, that would be one thing. But it doesn't. It calls for action to make sure women and minorities wind up as finalists. The third request adds to this pressure by suggesting that noncompliant lists of finalists be thrown out.

The paradox is clear. How can the first request, with its ringing call for "an explicit commitment to equal opportunity for women and minorities," be squared with the second and third requests, which ask state leaders to set up a quota system?

A quota is a required amount. If the list of finalists is required to include women and minorities regardless of the number of applicants, then the opportunity granted is not equal. It's preferred.

More important, quotas express that preference in a heavyhanded, arguably discriminatory and clearly unpopular way. That's shown not only by the passage of gender- and racial-preference bans in California, Washington, Michigan and Nebraska, but also by U.S. Supreme Court rulings that discourage the use of quotas.

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In fact, the court's ruling in the New Haven firefighters case -- the Ricci decision -- is so firm on this point that it might have made the reopening of academic searches illegal. At least, that's the opinion of Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative legal foundation that works to support a "colorblind society."

"I expect Ricci to have an impact on colleges' hiring of faculty and others," Clegg wrote in July.

"Among the practices I believe are vulnerable is the rejection of finalist pools for faculty positions because they lack candidates from certain racial or ethnic groups.

"Colleges and universities sometimes conduct a search to fill a faculty opening but then decline to hire anyone from the pool of finalist candidates because the school really wanted to hire someone from an 'underrepresented' group, none of whose members made the cut. Doing that looks just like New Haven's treatment of the firefighters who aced the promotion exam."

That's one lawyer's opinion and might well be wrong. But the trends in law and public opinion are hard to deny. The public stands behind aggressive outreach efforts to recruit a broadly diverse applicant pool. But support drops fast when officials start thumbing the scale more heavily to guarantee results.

As a distinguished group of North Dakota educators wrote recently, "an explicit commitment to equal opportunity" should be the search committee's guiding star.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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