Panelists Discuss Equal Opportunity As NOW Protests


Participants in a weekend conference on affirmative action at Harvard expressed frustration with their attempts to implement affirmative action programs in the face of decreasing support from the federal government and the academic community.

Twenty-five members of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL) picketed the the conference Saturday, protesting "the inadequacy" of Harvard's affirmative action plan.

Carol Cote, president of the eastern Massachusetts chapter of NOW, said Saturday that the conference was "a fine opportunity to dramatize just how unsatisfactory Harvard's attempts have been."

Walter J. Leonard, special assistant to President Bok and coordinator of Harvard's affirmative action program, said Thursday that he agreed "Harvard has not done as much as it should have in affirmative action."

Harvard is "backward, bigoted and hypocritical," Leonard said Saturday, "but so is the whole country. Harvard has actually moved faster than the rest of the country, which gives you an idea of how slow the country is moving."


Leonard said that affirmative action programs deal with "a societal program... this type of conference emphasizes the enormity of the situation."

The three-day conference included over 100 university and government affirmative action and civil rights officers. Leonard organized the conference, which included panel and workshop discussions of current problems with affirmative action programs.

Peter E. Holmes, director of the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, told the conference Friday that affirmative action programs are fighting "subtle areas of discrimination."

"The standards are becoming more refined," he said. "The issues are no longer as cut and dried as they used to be. Interests are clashing."

Slipping Support

Many of the speakers at the conference said affirmative action programs are losing support. President Bok said Friday that "a political shift in the country" has endangered the programs. "People have come to distrust the government and its efforts in social engineering," he said.

Other speakers said the current economic situation is a danger to affirmative action. Dean Rosovsky told the conference Saturday, "If we're not hiring anyone, how can we hire minorities or women?"

Participants also discussed the difficulty of enforcing affirmative action guidelines, which Leonard termed "institutionalized fairness."

Affirmative action guidelines require that an employer solicit a wide pool of applicants and encourage women and minority group members to apply. The employer is then free to choose the most highly qualified candidate for the position. The program relies upon the "good faith" of the employer to insure each applicant equal consideration.

Mario G. Obledo, former general counsel to the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, said Friday there is "no way [affirmative action] is going to work in higher education... it's doomed to failure."

"Good faith is a nebulous concept," Obledo said. "Good faith in tax laws would be known as a loophole."

One solution to the problem of relying upon "good faith" suggested at the conference is the establishment of uniform objective criteria for admissions, hiring and promotions. Robert M. O'Neil, executive vice president of the University of Cincinnati, said Friday universities "are going to have to fully articulate" their standards, to insure that each applicant is given equal treatment.

Other participants, however, felt that objective standards could not be applied to the academic community. "Objective tests just aren't known. The only factor medical students have in common with each other is that they're taller than rejected applicants," Chester M. Pierce, professor of Education and Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, said Friday.

He also said that objective criteria might not be flexible enough to consider the special skills minority candidates possess. "Black lawyers will face tougher tests than white lawyers when they graduate," Pierce said. "They should be selected for different qualities.