Hiring Blacks

WHEN THE Urban League of Boston complained last week about the relatively low number of Negro faculty at Harvard, there wasn't any question of denying the charge. The League was talking specifically about the Ed School, but the name of the School was unimportant: Harvard has only one tenured Negro throughout its faculty.

Faculty and officials argue privately--and justifiably--that there are almost no Negro professionals in the market who match Harvard's Olympian standards of competence. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the changing character of America's urban problem has made Harvard's definition of competence--at least in the social sciences--dangerously anachronistic. Harvard has the responsibility--to itself and to the black community--to seek out and hire black social scientists for both tenured and non-tenured positions.

The turmoil U.S. ghettos is presenting a broad-reaching challenge to the University's traditional notion of professionalism. Academic degrees simply do not measure a man's capacity to evaluate ghetto problems and communicate them to students, lrate ghetto parents seeking control of public schools have long argued that despite fourth-grade educations, they have a better understanding of the needs of ghetto children than any suburban-raised white Ph.D. Harvard owes its developing social scientists the broader perspective which only black instruction can provide. As the League itself pointed out, not every educated black retains this all-important sense for the culture of black Americans, but in formulating its 17 name list, the League demonstrated the black community's willingness to help the University find suitable candidates if it wants them.

THE angry mood of black ghettos also makes it increasingly difficult for white academics to research ghetto problems. This may strike white professionals as backward and unreasonable, but it is a predictable response to decades of fruitless probings, and promises by whites, and also to painful contact with condescending school and welfare "experts." Black communities are demanding that black faces present the questionnaires.

As more and more research efforts--particularly in education--involve the construction of model systems which use blacks as guinea pigs, ghetto communities are also questioning the competence of whites to construct answers to black problems. When Professor Robert Anderson of the School of Education failed to put any blacks on his task force planning 17 ghetto schools, Roxbury literally screamed with anger.


The real tragedy is not, of course, that Harvard will be forced to lower traditional academic requirements to benefit from black assistance. The paucity of first-rate black social scientists is just a barometer of the white racism which the Riot Commission documented so vividly. Harvard could private itself with skilled black faculty members--and do a service to the nation as well--by actively recruiting graduate students not only from prestigious universities, but from less demanding all-Negro schools.

Until whites take their heels off the backs of black Americans, any University action will seem to have only remote relevance to the country's racial agony, but Harvard can at least take the modest step forward of revising its outdated hiring practices.

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