Law School Pays the Price in 'Don't Ask' Rule Protest
SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. - A renewed fight over the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy is being watched closely here on the campus of the Vermont Law School, a 600-student institution on the banks of the White River.
The Vermont Law School is one of two law schools in the nation that bar military recruiters, as a protest against the 15-year-old rule that prevents openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military. As a result, the school is denied some federal research money - $300,000 to $500,000 a year by one outside analyst's estimate.
"Every once in a while an issue comes to a community and, despite a cost, it comes to the conclusion that it has to stand up for its principles," said Jeff Shields, president and dean of the law school. "It has to do with speaking truth to power, and it's one of those roles that those of us lucky enough to be trained as lawyers hopefully take from time to time."
Last week, an advocacy group urging the repeal of the policy released a report saying the Army and Air Force had discharged a disproportionate number of women in 2007 because of the rule. And in May, a California appeals court reinstated a lawsuit challenging the policy, while a federal appeals court in Boston upheld it a month later.
In 2006, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, upheld a law that withholds some federal money from law schools and universities that do not give military recruiters the same access to campus as other employers.
"If the Department of Defense finds a school is doing this, it notifies other federal agencies and funding gets cut off," said Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a department spokesman.
The law, the Solomon Amendment, was challenged by a consortium of law schools and professors.
Here in Vermont, the prospect of losing federal grants mattered to the small, independent law school, which has an endowment of $14 million.
The fact that the school is not affiliated with a university, however, made the decision to forgo the money easier, because other programs are not affected.
At most universities, federal grants help finance dozens of scientific and other research programs.
The William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul also bars recruiters from its campus. The school is not losing any federal money, however, because its research is not financed out of four spending bills affected by the Solomon Amendment.
"It was a pretty simple application of our nondiscrimination policy," said Eric S. Janus, president and dean of William Mitchell. "It really arises out of our desire to make sure that all of our students have equal access to all opportunities, including the opportunity to serve in the military."
Paula C. Johnson, a professor at the Syracuse University College of Law and a co-president of the Society of American Law Teachers, one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, said the two institutions were keeping alive the issue of "don't ask, don't tell" and its impact on law schools.
"They are the only institutions that have taken as dramatic and as principled a stance as they have, so it's certainly put in the category of profiles in courage," Professor Johnson said. "They have done things that other schools have not done."
On campus here, the policy is often a topic of conversation. The college also sends students to Washington each year for lobby day, when they protest "don't ask, don't tell."
Richard Eckley, a former marine and a second-year student, does not agree with the school's decision to bar military recruiters, saying it is not constructive.
But Kathy Stickel, a student who served in the Army and who is also a lesbian, does not think the school should change its policy.
"There's great value in doing something right when there's a cost attached to it," Ms. Stickel said. "You shouldn't change because someone is waving money in front of you."
Alison Share, who graduated this year, said even though the school had not made a big splash with the decision, it had taught her a valuable lesson.
"It's important to stand up, even when no one is watching," Ms. Share said.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company