It was the mid-1970s and Allan Bakke had filed suit against the University of California's Davis Medical School for admitting a black applicant with lower test scores while rejecting him. The case ignited a controversy and spawned the phrase "reverse discrimination." It also sparked the interest of a young Rodney Stem, who was entering graduate school at Towson State University and wondering what his major should be.
His choice was American minority relations. While studying that, he was allowed to take a third of the curriculum at the historically black Morgan State University, where his course work included black and women's studies.
What makes Mr. Stem noteworthy is not only that he is white and chose an atypical education. It is also because his path led him ultimately to a career in the Howard County Sheriff's Department, where he now works as a sergeant and deputy sheriff. In an era when the interaction between police and the public, especially African-Americans, is a sensitive issue, Mr. Stem has managed to blend his seemingly divergent choices of human relations and law enforcement.
In addition to his work as a civil process supervisor, which makes him responsible for tenant evictions, Mr. Stem also goes into county schools to lecture students and is often in demand as a sensitivity trainer for adults. To all of this, he brings compassion and a sense of a broader humanity.
Here's Mr. Stem on evictions: "It's difficult. Even though you try to provide TLC and treat them with dignity, the bottom line is that you're taking from them the only home they know."
On youth: "Nothing is more satisfying than going to the schools and talking to the kids about basic human values."
On law enforcement: "The distrust between communities and police needs to break down. It's a national crisis. We are accenting the things that break us apart."
On human relations: "I like to emphasize how much we are alike as opposed to how different we are."
Next week, the Maryland Sheriffs' Association will honor Sergeant Stem as Deputy Sheriff of the Year. He deserves this recognition not only for his 17 years with the Howard sheriff's department, but because he adds a broad perspective to a profession too often insular in its thinking.