New Hampshire Ends Affirmative-Action Preferences at Colleges

January 04, 2012

Public colleges in New Hampshire are precluded from using affirmative-action preferences in hiring or admissions decisions under a new law that took effect on January 1 after being passed by the state's legislature last year with relatively little public opposition.

The measure prohibits New Hampshire's university system, community-college system, postsecondary education commission, and other state agencies from giving preferences in recruiting, hiring, promotion, or admission "based on race, sex, national origin, religion, or sexual orientation."

Both chambers of the state's legislature, which came to be dominated by conservative Republicans as a result of the 2010 elections, overwhelmingly passed the measure last spring. The measure went into law after Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, took no action on it.

In sharp contrast to other states that have experienced highly publicized battles over similar bills or ballot initiatives, New Hampshire passed its measure with little input from national advocacy groups on either side of the affirmative-action debate.

State Rep. Gary Hopper, a Republican who co-sponsored the measure, on Tuesday said he believes that supporters of affirmative action might have been lulled by the state's defeat of similar measures in the past. When he first co-sponsored such a bill in 2000, he said, the legislature's meeting rooms "were full of people fighting against it." This time around, he speculated, "people were caught off guard" and "did not pay any attention" because they assumed such a measure would fail.

Ward Connerly, who has helped lead campaigns on behalf of voter-passed bans on affirmative-action preferences in several states, on Tuesday said he and the advocacy group he founded, the American Civil Rights Institute, deliberately stayed out of the debate over the New Hampshire bill to avoid drawing national attention to it.

"When we found out that it was alive," he said, "we decided to keep a low profile, because the moment I surface it seems to draw out all of the national crowd."

On the other side of the issue, officials of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union could not be reached Tuesday for comment. Mel Gagarin, a spokesman for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has fought such measures in other states, said in an e-mail Tuesday that his organization's legal team had no comment on the New Hampshire law "as we haven't been involved in this matter specifically."

When the bill was being discussed in legislative hearings, the Community College System of New Hampshire submitted testimony arguing that the measure is inconsistent with federal civil-rights laws. Joan Tambling, director of human resources for the University System of New Hampshire, testified that the university system does not use affirmative-action preferences, although it does have hiring goals for women and minority members and takes steps to ensure it recruits diverse pools of applicants.

Supporters of the measure in the legislature argued that affirmative-action preferences set the intended beneficiaries up for failure and cause others to question how much they have actually accomplished.

Shannon E. Reid, a spokeswoman for the state's community-college system, and Wanda S. Mitchell, vice provost for faculty development and inclusive excellence for the University of New Hampshire, on Tuesday predicted the measure would have little impact on their institutions. "Nothing in this bill would cause or require the community-college system to alter its practices," Ms. Reid said. Ms. Mitchell said her institution considers only "demonstrated experience" and does not make hiring or admissions decisions based on "social identity."

Representative Hopper, the bill's co-sponsor, argued, however, that the college systems essentially engage in affirmative-action preferences by trying to manipulate the composition of their applicant pools to ensure that women and minority members fare well. If the new law has no effect, he asked, "why did they fight against it?"

Mr. Connerly, of the American Civil Rights Institute, said the passage of the New Hampshire measure is one of three recent developments signaling an increased willingness by state legislators to support the sorts of affirmative-action restrictions previously passed only through state referenda. Arizona lawmakers voted in 2009 to put on the 2010 ballot a ban on the use of affirmative-action preferences by public colleges and other state agencies, which voters passed. And Oklahoma lawmakers voted last year to put such a ban on the ballot this fall.

"I think the mood of the country that was provoked by the Tea Party has engendered more willingness on the part of legislatures to deal with issues such as this," Mr. Connerly said.

Roger B. Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes racial and ethnic preferences, said, "When these things come to a vote, and people have to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, I think a lot of politicians conclude that they do not want to be on record as favoring this kind of preferential treatment."