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Schroeder Primed For Affirmative Action

November 1, 1997

Mary Ann Travis

Patricia Schroeder might walk into ghosts of her own personal affirmative-action battles past when she speaks on campus on Nov. 6.

In Hebert Hall, the true-to-life replica of the late Louisiana Representative F. Edward Hebert's Congressional office--complete with framed crossed swords on blue velvet, Navy flags and a robe decorated shoulder-to-hem with military insignia--could remind the former Congresswoman from Colorado of the resistance Hebert put forth in 1973 to her move to seek appointment to the all-male U.S. House Armed Services Committee, of which Hebert was chairman.

Schroeder has recounted in her autobiography Champion of the Great American Family that Hebert did not consider her "worthy of the seat. Women, he claimed, knew nothing of combat, since historically they had never been part of it.

"His reasoning seemed to me to be completely bogus," continued Schroeder, "since many of the male committee members [including Hebert] had never served in the armed forces either."

Schroeder will be the guest speaker at the Marion Gargan Alchon Memorial Forum, Thursday, Nov. 6 (see calendar, feature of the month). The forum is free and open to the public. The forum's topic, "Affirmative Action," fits well with Schroeder's career in public life. She served in Congress from 1972 to 1996, championing family issues and advancing opportunities for women in the military, including the right of female military personnel to fly combat missions--exactly the combat experience that Hebert never expected women to have.

Schroeder kept her seat on the Armed Services Committee for 24 years, working to get United States allies to share free-world defense costs, improving family housing and facilities for military personnel and ensuring that female military personnel have the right to have abortions in military hospitals. Schroeder's biggest legislative triumph is, however, not related to military matters. It was the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, a decade-long effort.

When she speaks at the Alchon Forum, Schroeder plans to address issues of equality and diversity, binding them into the affirmative action discussion. Funded by Bernard Alchon in memory of his wife, who studied at Tulane, the forum is designed to "be stimulating and provocative," says Rebecca Mark, associate professor of English and faculty adviser to the Alchon Committee.

The committee comprises a panel of one undergraduate and five graduate students, who are busily educating themselves on the topic, preparing to "push the discussion of affirmative action to a high intellectual level," according to Mark. "People should not leave the room [McAlister Auditorium] without a new way of thinking, a shift in the way they view affirmative action--a controversial issue of absolute national importance," says Mark.

The panel of students--John Dudley, Kent Germany, Justin Harmon, Cindy Reese, Petrice Sams-Abiodun, and Fernanda Zullo, whose disciplines include English, history, sociology, Spanish and law--will question Schroeder after her opening 30-minute speech.

The forum will also be open to questions from the audience. Workplace issues, affirmative action's origination in John Kennedy Lyndon Johnson executive orders, how race has been used in the affirmative action discourse and where quotas come into play are likely to be part of the dialogue between Schroeder and the panel.

Dudley, a panel member and graduate student in English, will focus on the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment and its equal protection clause, which has been the legal basis for affirmative action.

"In reality," Dudley says, "white middle-class women have benefited the most from affirmative action laws." What Dudley would like to bring up with Schroeder is why so many people have an aversion to affirmative action. "Why does it come down to a black and white issue?" he wonders.

Dudley is studying the effects of Proposition 209, a referendum that California voters passed in 1996 to end all racial preferences by the state government. The most glaring result of this new policy--which is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union--is that only 14 African Americans were accepted to enter the University of California Berkeley law school class in fall 1997. And none of these students opted to accept the offer of admission.

The UC-Berkeley situation--which undoubtedly will have ramifications throughout higher education--will be debated by Schroeder and the panel as they tackle one of the most contentious issues of our time. In the middle of all the action, Schroeder may still find time to stop by the Hebert Museum to see, mounted on the wall, the words of her old foe, Eddie Hebert. "We need people in public life who think for themselves," he said. Pat Schroeder probably couldn't agree more.

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