Threats to Affirmative Action and Federal Funding Force New Activism

* Rudenstine will likely speak out on hot-button issues in coming months.

When it comes to using the clout of a Harvard president to sway public policy, Rudenstine's critics have often said he is no Derek Bok, who seemed to spend more time in Congressional chambers than Massachusetts halls.

But perhaps Rudenstine has just been waiting in the wings for a year like this, when two of the topics he has focused on since his days at Princeton-the cost of higher education and the benefit of diversity in education-are on the agenda in Washington.

The Cost of Higher Education

Since Rudenstine became President in 1991, Harvard's tuition increases have slowed from the double digit increases students saw in the early '80s. Still, one year as a Harvard undergraduate costs about the same as a Mercedes "C" class sedan

The national media has decried the increases for years, and now Washington officials from the White House and Congress might do something about them. At the end of June, President Clinton signed a law to create a bi-partisan commission to study the rising cost of attending college across the nation.

Despite Rudenstine's concern about college costs, he said the panel's scope alarms him. The bill gives the committee only 120 days to report its findings.

"Even for a scholar to make a report on that topic in 120 days is a pretty formidable task," Rudenstine said.

Sources close to the president said he is concerned that the panel may only have time for a knee-jerk reaction-blaming wasteful spending and price gouging for the current costs.

The study comes at a critical time for higher education lobbyists, when the Higher Education Authorization Act of 1965, the law that created most federal spending programs for higher education, including Pell grants, Stafford loans and other mainstays of college financing.

"We need to be more calculated in Washington in demonstrating in a visible way the necessary bu costly expenses of running a university like Harvard," said James H. Rowe III '73, vice president for government, community and public affairs.

Diversity

Higher education will also endure the first case to seriously challenge the Supreme Court's 1978 ruling in the University of California v. Bakke, the legal foundation for college affirmative action programs.

Briefs were recently filed in the case Piscataway Board of Education v. Taxman, a dispute over the legality of using race as a basis for employment decisions. The court has scheduled oral arguments for later in the fall. Officials worry that a broad ruling in this case could outlaw colleges' use of racial preferences to promote diversity.

"This could be very, very bad and very big news," said Anne H. Taylor, vice president and general counsel.

This case is only part of a national trend. Advocates of affirmative action have seen setbacks across the country as institutions in California, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi have been for bidden from considering race as a factor in hiring and admissions.

Rudenstine has been a leader on this issue since he authored his most recent President's Report on diversity in higher education. Last year he also coordinated an effort by 62 schools to publish a fullpage ad in The New York Times attesting to diversity's importance in higher education.

Though the University filed a brief in the Bakke case-and though Harvard College's admissions process was heralded in the majority decision as the model to be followed-it will rely on the efforts of various higher education associations to present its view in this case. Twenty-five associations filed a brief two weeks ago that encouraged the court to issue a narrow ruling pertaining only to the specifics of the case.

The basic issue in the case is whether the Piscataway school board acted unconstitutionally in 1989 when it laid off Sharon Taxman, a white teacher at a local high school, instead of an equally qualified black teacher who was the only minority member of the school's business faculty.

Rudenstine's cibcern that the court might expand its ruling beyond the narrow scope of the specific case is perhaps founded. In the case Hopwood vs. the University of Texas last year, the U.S. Third District Court's decision transcended the question of the case-whether the quota system employed by the University of Texas Law School was Constitutional-to outlaw any kind of preferences in admissions whatsoever.

The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving the lower court's ruling in place as the law of the land in the district. But if it had upheld the ruling, even Harvard's delicate system of subtle preferences would have become illegal.

Many fear that the same impulse that has led some to throw out the entire affirmative action system rather than fix its faults could lead to the demise of the decades-old promise of federal funds for higher education; members of the 1994 Republican revolution nearly demolished the entire system of support in a single swipe of the budget ax.

Rudenstine's timing for entering the national debate is not just fortuitous-it is necessary. If he and others do not protest the destruction of the status quo, the values he has advanced his entire life may vanish in a flurry of legislation.