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New London - Buried in the annual Coast Guard authorization act passed this week by Congress is wording that would strike from the U.S. Code the statement that all appointments to the Coast Guard Academy "shall be made without regard to the sex, race, color or religious beliefs of an applicant."
Under current federal law the academy is "race neutral," but the change would put it on the same footing as other colleges and universities in balancing its enrollment by admitting students from specific groups.
The other military service academies admit students by congressional nomination, while the Coast Guard Academy has traditionally admitted students on the basis of academic merit, like civilian colleges and universities.
Lawmakers, often critical of the lack of diversity at the academy, were attempting to increase the diversity of the student body by bringing the school's admissions process in line with those of the other service academies. But they backed off that proposal, and it was not included in the compromise version of the act.
Now it appears they are giving the academy some latitude to diversify its student body and meet their expectations.
"This legislative change ensures that the federal protections enshrined in the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination by entities receiving federal funding apply uniformly at all federal service academies, including the Coast Guard Academy," said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus who led the effort to make the academy's admissions process the same as those of the other service academies.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that race can be used in university admission decisions, but limited how much of a factor it could play. Selective universities looking to diversify could consider race, but the Coast Guard Academy never could.
Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe, the superintendent, said the academy "will be allowed to follow constitutional law as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court" if the act becomes law.
He did not elaborate on the implications for the academy since the act is still proposed legislation, not yet signed by the president.
Students from racial and ethnic minority groups made up 24 percent of the class of 2014 at the start of this summer. But the percentage of minorities in each class has traditionally hovered around 15 percent. The school has fared better with women, who typically make up about 30 percent of each class.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a member of the academy's Board of Visitors, said the change to the code would give the Coast Guard the "maximum legal flexibility to achieve the goal of diversity, and does it in a way that doesn't create quotas."
"I think it dovetails with the academy's efforts to do outreach, as opposed to having an external admissions process which congressional appointments would have imposed," he said Thursday.
Burhoe has said the academy is spending more to advertise, recruit and host educators and minority students on campus. The academy is also sending more students to preparatory school to meet the academy's requirements.
Simply striking the sentence will not increase diversity, said Antonio Farias, the academy's director of diversity affairs.
"We have to get out there and recruit," he said Thursday. "Having the sentence simply gone doesn't mean more qualified applicants from diverse backgrounds will apply. What it means is it gives us latitude in how we shape classes so we're on par with the Harvards, MITs and other highly selective colleges that are not under a race-blind arrangement, and gender blind and religious blind. We have had all these blinders on."
Farias said minority students would still have to meet all of the qualifications, and then their background becomes a "plus factor," as it would for a football player or a cellist.