Affirmative Action

LEGISLATORS IN WASHINGTON are whipping up a backlash against affirmative action programs that aim at righting the for-too-long-wrong numbers of blacks, women and other minorities employed in higher education.

Actually, the legislators are the whipping boys of recalcitrant schools and universities--institutions that have found equal opportunity in hiring a harder pill to swallow in a time of recession than in bygone days of plenty.

Such was the case last August, when representatives of universities and teachers' unions prodded Congress to "take another look" at the present, court-upheld system requiring colleges that are federal contractors to set voluntary hiring goals and make a "good-faith effort" to meet them.

The resultant six-week investigation by Rep. James. G. O'Hara's (D.-Mich.) Special House Subcommittee on Education--the first such review by the legislative branch--apparently will issue in legislation to outlaw such programs. The rationale of the committee's majority here, it seems, is that minority hiring "goals" are the same as "quotas," which are the same as "reverse discrimination," which is something the government should not be "bankrolling."

In fact, affirmative action goals are not quotas, since they are not binding. They are not reverse discrimination, since they aim only at reversing discrimination--that is, making tenure committees and personnel offices search out applicant pools they previously ignored. No colleges have yet lost federal grants or contracts for failure to reach them. And the only discrimination in higher education the federal government has ever bankrolled came before the Civil Rights Act was extended in 1972 to cover university employers--when federal agencies shovelled taxpayers' money into institutions with all-white, all-male payrolls.

October brought other congressional perils, as well. At the same time the O'Hara subcommittee was meeting, a little-noticed rider to an education bill passed the House, sponsored by Rep. Marjorie S. Holt (R-Md.). If passed by the Senate, the anti-busing measure would prohibit federal agencies from requiring "school systems" to keep track of their minorities--students or teachers. Should colleges be included in its catch-all jurisdiction, as some on the Hill have said is likely, affirmative action and Title IX programs would be undermined, too.

What was Harvard doing all the while? No one is quite sure. Certainly, Harvard has been more persistent of late in telling Washington what's wrong with affirmative action and Title IX than what's right--and worthy of defense--in such programs.

The Administration has spent all fall--not to mention much of last spring--lobbying with educators and legislators to preserve the sanctity of its confidential files. Surely it can devote equal time to a more important issue--ensuring that progress toward a fully integrated society is not halted in midstride.