The University may be having trouble agreeing with the federal government on an acceptable non-discriminatory hiring plan. But this week's revelation that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare will neither accept nor reject Harvard's latest proposal indicates that the government itself is having problems. It is unclear if HEW has decided exactly what standards federal contractors must meet, or if the department is merely playing it by ear.
One month ago--just two weeks after the University submitted its revised plan to HEW--we were led to believe that the government was close to accepting Harvard's program. This week--a month-and-a-half after the federal review due-date was due--an HEW officer said the government would respond within two weeks to Harvard's latest plan. The letter in response will not give formal approval or rejection to the proposal. Rather, it will request additions to and clarifications of Harvard's five-volume plan.
Only a day before HEW revealed its intentions regarding Harvard's plan, Walter J. Leonard, the University's affirmative action coordinator, speculated that Harvard's prestige has forced HEW to proceed with particular caution in its look at the University's program. Events have repeatedly demonstrated that the orientation of HEW's commitment to affirmative action is more political than moral. It is in vogue--even in more conservative political circles--to support increased hiring of women in particular.
The government says it demands that all federal contractors open their doors to more women and minority group members or risk loss of federal funds. But while HEW has repeatedly questioned the apparatus by which universities, including Harvard, will implement their affirmative action programs, the department itself has yet to carry through on its ultimatum. Defense research is more important to the Nixon administration than its own morality or the morality of the institutions it employs.
And universities such as Harvard are well aware of the government's impotence. Likewise, universities including Harvard believe that their commitments to non-discriminatory hiring and recruitment end with federal acceptance of their affirmative action proposals--programs that carry no obligation beyond a promise to try harder.