Solomon Amendment: a threat to education

The Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutionality of the Solomon Amendment to the Military Selective Service Act of 1982. This amendment requires all college students who apply for federal financial aid to sign a form specifying either that they have registered for the draft or, for one of several reasons, need not do so. College financial aid officers must certify these forms before disbursing aid.

Many colleges and universities have expressed grave reservations about the wisdom of the amendment. These institutions have accepted the appropriateness of other regulations, including the affirmative-action provisions of Titles VI and IX of the Civil Rights Act, and have entered into a partnership with the federal government in dispensing aid. How can they justify their cooperation and acceptance in these areas and maintain their opposition to the requirements of the Solomon Amendment?

The key difference is that administering financial aid and removing discrimination against certain groups serve a clear educational purpose. The affirmative-action and civil rights provisions allow the government and colleges to work together to advance their mutual interest in the education of as many young American citizens as possible. Requiring colleges to certify that students have registered for the draft imposes a very different kind of responsibility. Now that the Solomon Amendment has been upheld, college financial aid officers must become ''policemen'' for a law with no relevance to any educational purpose , thus establishing a dangerous precedent.

Most concerned college and university presidents are not arguing against or for draft registration per se. In fact, many people in academic life favor a program of national service that extends beyond military service and involves both young women and young men. The issue is not the draft; it is the imposing of obligations of law enforcement on college officials in an area quite alien to their professional responsibilities, and the interference with traditional academic freedoms.

In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), Justice Felix Frankfurter maintained that while the university cannot exist as an autonomous institution impervious to governmental authority, four freedoms of the academy must be protected: ''To determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, and how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.'' The controversies over loyalty oaths several decades ago touched on the academy's right to decide who may teach. The present requirement that those who receive aid must sign a form certifying their compliance with draft laws affects the issue of who may be admitted to study.

Congress has upheld the importance of federal financial aid to students in this country. It has determined that it is in the national interest to ensure the opportunity of higher education for all citizens, regardless of their economic situation. Those who refuse to sign the compliance form may, of course, decide not to apply for aid and still be admitted to study. But in the absence of the aid for which they would otherwise be eligible, access to education may well become impossible. By affecting only one particular group within the population of potential students, the law curtails the freedom of institutions to admit whomever they wish.

Unlike the provisions of the Civil Rights Act, which carry out national policy that is applicable to all institutions in American life, the Solomon Amendment deals only with colleges and universities. Although all men of draft age are required to register, this law affects only needy college students.

There are other public-policy issues here as well. Female students or older men are required to sign the form indicating compliance, although they are not eligible for the draft. A woman who might find it morally difficult to sign the form would forfeit financial aid although she has broken no law. If she opposes draft registration and is sympathetic with men who face this issue, it is hard for her to certify her exemption without any opportunity to record her own conscientious objections to the law. If she believes that women should have the same rights and responsibilities as men, she may resist the law by refusing to sign a piece of paper that formally recognizes the ineligibility of women for mandatory military service.

It is not in the nation's interest to link access to education to compliance with an unrelated public law. The power of Congress should not be used to place colleges and universities in the inappropriate role of enforcers of regulations irrelevant to their essential role in American society. To do so will cast the shadow of orthodoxy on the intellectual life of the academic community, rather than foster diversity of thought and thinkers.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.