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A Course For Affirmative Action Professionals

The attacks on affirmative action over the last decade have not stopped a prestigious New York Ivy League institution from offering a popular educational program geared towards professionals already working in the affirmative action arena.

For more than 20 years, the New York City campus of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations has granted a certificate in affirmative action to individuals who deal with the legal and policy intricacies of affirmative action on a daily basis.

Between 50 and 60 students — most of whom are lawyers, consultants, human resources personnel and affirmative action and diversity officers at their respective colleges and universities — enroll in the required six workshops each year, where they take courses like, “Strategic Diversity Recruiting” and “The Law of EEO.”

Some policy experts contend that the certificate would have already come under attack from affirmative action opponents if Cornell were a public university. The university is currently the only one in the nation offering such a program.

The programs director, Christopher J. Metzler, says there has been steady interest over the years.

“Increasingly, employers are finding that folks working in affirmative action offices are fairly inexperienced in the whole affirmative action context,” he says. “We are providing for employers the training and development for all of their folks to do affirmative action in their various organizations.”

Diversity consultant Michelle Knight says she is considering enrolling in the certificate program. She was recently contracted to help a large New York City  nonprofit organization formulate an affirmative action plan for the next 5-10 years.

“I know people who have done this certificate program, and they all said that it helped them to refine their skills in the area of affirmative action” says Knight. “I think we need more of these kinds of programs across the nation.”

Metzler says the ongoing attacks on affirmative action will not necessarily affect Cornell’s certificate program.

“We re-evaluate all of our programs every year,” he says, adding that many of its strongest supporters are private employers who have voluntarily instituted affirmative action programs in their offices. 

Roger Clegg, the president and general counsel of the conservative think tank Center for Equal Opportunity and a fierce opponent of many affirmative action programs, says he is not opposed to the Cornell’s program.

Clegg says he supports vigorous training for those charged with understanding the legal and policy dimensions of affirmative action. And he insists that he has no problem with colleges and organizations reaching out to underrepresented groups, as long as they don’t receive individual preferences because of their underrepresented status.

“The only kind of affirmative action that raises legal problems and policy problems is affirmative action that involves preferences,” he says. “Whatever happens with the law, there will be some kind of affirmative action and outreach that will remain perfectly legal.”

– Jamal Watson

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