It used to be that the push to make up for the sins of discrimination came mainly from liberal idealists and political activists - those who mounted the civil rights barricades in the 1960s and '70s.
Affirmative action became their tool of choice by which schools, government agencies, and other organizations could achieve a racial and gender balance more nearly reflective of society as a whole.
Today, that effort has gained new and perhaps surprising support from hard-nosed business executives traditionally focused on profit-and-loss statements to the exclusion of nearly all else.
Twenty leading corporations recently went on record supporting the University of Michigan in a high-profile legal battle to preserve affirmative action.
The move throws economic and political clout behind affirmative action at a time when such programs are increasingly challenged in courts and ballot referendums.
Prompting the corporate activism, CEOs say, is a domestic population that is growing more diverse, as well as a global economy in which national boundaries are increasingly irrelevant. Corporate leaders say they need a multicultural workforce if they are to succeed worldwide. And the place to start, say many executives, is the colleges and universities where new employees are recruited.
"Without a strong commitment to diversity from the world's leading academic institutions, it will become more and more difficult for multinational corporations to compete at the global level," says James Hackett, chief executive officer of Steelcase Inc. a maker of office furniture in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The University of Michigan faces two separate lawsuits in which whites, denied admission to the university's undergraduate and law school programs, allege the institution discriminated against them by admitting less-qualified minorities.
But in their legal brief supporting the university, 20 Fortune 500 companies argue that affirmative action - specific diversity goals and the steps to meet them - is a building block of good education.
"It is essential that [students] be educated in an environment where they are exposed to diverse ideas, perspectives and interactions," say the companies, which include such well-known names as Microsoft, Intel, Kellogg, Texaco, Kodak, and Dow Chemical.
That education, in turn, paves the way for business success, the firms assert.
More diversity, more innovation
"Diversity is ... a fundamental business strategy," says A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, one of the companies supporting the university. "Our success depends entirely on our ability to understand these diverse consumers' needs and to work effectively with customers and suppliers around the world."
"All the data I've seen in 30 years of being in business - and all of my personal experience at Procter & Gamble over the last 23 years - convince me that a diverse organization will out-think, out-innovate, and out-perform a homogeneous organization every single time," Mr. Lafley wrote to the company's workforce this month.
In a split decision 22 years ago, the United States Supreme Court held that "the attainment of a diverse student body ... clearly is a constitutionally permissible goal of an institution of higher education." Yet the court in the highly controversial Bakke case also stated that racial quotas were not legal.
Since then, courts in Texas and Georgia have knocked down university affirmative action plans, and voters in California and Washington State have passed ballot measures banning affirmative action in state government (including state institutions of higher learning).
"To base racial preferences upon an amorphous, unquantifiable, and temporally unlimited goal is to engage in naked racial balancing," US district judge B. Avant Edenfield wrote last July in overruling the University of Georgia's affirmative action program. Eventually, the high court is expected to revisit the issue.
For its part, the University of Michigan acknowledges including race and ethnic background among other considerations in selecting students - but not quotas.
Other universities are watching Michigan's case closely. Ohio State University president William Kirwan has said that "an adverse ruling for Michigan would threaten our affirmative action programs." Legal briefs in support of Michigan have been filed by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, the Association of American Law Schools, and the US Justice Department.
The question sharply divides political and educational philosophies.
The National Association of Scholars, representing 4,300 professors, administrators, and college trustees, argues against the University of Michigan in a legal brief. "It is high time that our elite universities stop sending the message that racial identity is worth more to them than individual achievement," says Bradford Wilson, who heads the group.
In their third and last debate, George W. Bush and Al Gore both said they reject quotas as a tool to achieve racial and ethnic balance in schools, government, and the workplace. But Mr. Gore, the Democratic nominee for the White House, expressed strong support for affirmative action. Mr. Bush, his Republican rival, said he preferred "affirmative access," presumably upholding civil rights laws while finding ways to help all qualified persons - not just minorities - gain access to universities. In siding with the University of Michigan, the 20 corporations appear agree more with Gore.
Across all industries, meanwhile, an age of global investors, markets, and production facilities promises to make diversity increasingly important. Supporters of affirmative action in education and hiring see demographics the same way. At the time of the Bakke decision in 1978, Americans of African, Asian, Hispanic, and native descent made up about 20 percent of the US population. Today, that number has risen to 28 percent, and it is expected to reach 47 percent by mid-century.
Affirmative action may be of special importance to high-tech firms.
"It is critical to Microsoft's interests that the number of minorities in technical degree programs be expanded rather than reduced," Microsoft Corp. stated in its legal document supporting the University of Michigan. Backing that assertion, company chairman Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, have started a $1 billion charity funding 1,000 minority scholarships each year.
"Companies have come to realize that diversity is no longer a concept without definition in today's society. It is a pragmatic reality and vital to [their] success," says Lewis Shomer, whose company organizes high-tech job fairs for the NAACP.
The University of Michigan is grateful for all the high-powered support for its cases. Says university president Lee Bollinger: "American businesses view our ability to maintain racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses as essential to their economic competitiveness."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society