Noble Lies

At Harvard, affirmative action takes its toll

Whatever the benefits of affirmative action, one undeniable downside is the element of disrespect it introduces onto our campus.

This week’s appointment of Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies Evelynn M. Hammonds as Dean of Harvard College was greeted mostly with disinterest; students tend to ignore the vicissitudes of administrative hiring.

But on one Harvard mailing list to which I subscribe, an impassioned 28-message e-brawl broke out. The subject was the relevance of the most visible attributes of our new dean—her race and gender—to her appointment.

“Who…is Evelyn Hammonds?” the provocative e-mail began, “I’ve never seen her even mentioned in connection with undergraduate affairs, and it seems…crazy that they passed over people like [Harvard College Professor] Jay [M.] Harris to choose her.”

This was followed by a coda intended to provoke: “Wait, hold the phone, she’s black? And a woman? Oh, nevermind then.”

A reply arrived within six minutes. “Right, you know nothing about her, ergo it’s affirmative action. Why don’t you try engaging on substance instead of crass identity politics?” A second respondent was simply incredulous: “Did that implication really just go over the list? Really?”

One is not supposed to speak of such things; it has been considered impolite, even wicked, to register doubts as to a candidate’s viability beyond meeting arbitrary demographic demands. But precedent suggests they are not unreasonable.

An Oct. 14, 2002 New Yorker article quoted the former president of Stanford as saying of the decision to hire former provost Condoleezza Rice that, “it would be disingenuous for me to say that the fact that she was a woman, the fact that she was black…weren’t in my mind. They were.”

It took some honesty and candor to say that, just as it did to call attention to the mechanics of identity politics at work at Harvard (though, to any astute observer of university politics, their influence is sort of obvious).

Yet the university is terrified of any suggestion of race- or sex-based biases. The administration immediately distanced itself from this association, and their dread was conspicuous.

“Evelynn is my choice as the College dean because, first and foremost, she’s the best person for the job,” said Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith, “independent of the fact that she’s a woman and an African-American.”

Why did Dean Smith have to add such a humiliating and terrible caveat? Dean Hammonds, after all, is a respected scholar within both her departments and was well-regarded in her previous administrative position.

But he knows what other people are thinking (and saying, however privately). To defend, after all, is to deflect. He must deny the weight of affirmative action on Hammonds’ hiring precisely because its significant role in decision-making at Harvard is an open secret.

In fact, Hammonds herself deserves some credit for this disrespect. It was in the mandate of her previous job to ensure “greater diversity in faculty ranks.” The irony sings with starkness: Harvard’s coordinator of affirmative action now finds herself demeaned by it, and the implications it carries.

The misfortune lies is this: no matter how talented and capable an administrator Hammonds is, doubts over the initial appointment will remain—even if only one or two provocateurs dare to voice them aloud.

In this sly, wafting doubt is the greatest injury done. When perfectly able minorities must constantly disprove a default presumption of being unqualified for their jobs—that is a problem. When, to remedy racial and gender barriers in society, we conjure up new negative associations—that is a problem.

These are affirmative action’s damning downsides. We usually weigh these against other ends, like improving social mobility or exposing the homogeneous majority to diversity.

But at some point the program’s negatives will counterbalance the positives.

Meanwhile, for some, a new Dean’s tenure begins in a haze of doubt and disrespect.


Sahil K. Mahtani ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.