Bok's Tough Bargainer in the Action Office

After spending the first part of the summer teaching at the University of California's Davis Law School, Walter J. Leonard returned to Cambridge in the beginning of August 1971 to start his new job as special assistant to President Bok. Leonard didn't even have a chance to arrange the furniture in his Mass Hall office before Bok set him to work on the first in a long line of administrative assignments.

The crisis of that summer began when Bok received a letter from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare which explained that Harvard's affirmative action program no longer met minimum federal standards. The letter, dated July 15, gave Harvard 30 days to formulate a new non-discriminatory hiring plan or run the risk of losing its federal funds.

The first thing Leonard did after he discovered he had 15 days to resolve Harvard's affirmative-action problem, he recalls three years later, was to get a cab and take a ride down to HEW's Boston Office of Civil Rights. "They were polite and they were kind," Leonard says of the HEW bureaucrats who had the responsibility for passing on the fitness of Harvard's affirmative action plans, "but they were also unyielding." Considering that it took Leonard nearly two and a half years to get an action program approved, there's little wonder that he now thinks of the Civil Rights officers as tough bargainers.

Walter Leonard is a pretty tough bargainer in his own right and in the past three years Bok has given him the responsibility for handling some of the stickiest problems facing the administration. Affirmative action is by far the most important of these, but in the past two years Leonard has also found himself in the thick of several other controversies which have pitted him in direct confrontation with militant students and faculty. Last year Leonard was placed squarely in the center of the long-standing debate over black studies at Harvard when he served as the administration's representative on the Committee to Review the Afro-American Studies Department. This year he remained in the hot seat while he presided over Bok's advisory committee on the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research. In both roles Leonard was a persistent and persuasive spokesman for the administration's concerns, but for the most part he failed to convince too many people of the administration's good intentions in its treatment of minorities.

Leonard knows that on the face of it, the University's performance in developing an affirmative action plan gives administration critics good reason to be skeptical of Harvard's commitment to progressive hiring policies. He agrees with his critics that the plan finally approved by HEW does not move fast enough in bringing the number of minority-group members and women to an equitable level, and he admits quite freely that he is "not very happy with the numbers" cited in the plan. Yet Leonard continues to staunchly defend the plan and because of the context in which it was developed, he thinks of it as an historic achievement.


The plan was drawn up, Leonard points out, in an era when Harvard had no formal commitment to affirmative action. The fact that the University has now made a commitment in writing, he thinks, is significant in and of itself. Even more important, to Leonard's way of thinking, is that after three years of effort he has been able to convince people of the importance of the commitment.

"People naturally resist change," Leonard says. "It's not that they are evil people, it's just that they become comfortable with what they know." He describes administration efforts to get the Department of Athletics to hire a black trainer and to persuade the Health Services to hire a black doctor as the kinds of isolated efforts that must proceed larger-scale affirmative action policies.

He also talks about departmental resistance to the central administration's affirmative action program. Leonard says that the failure of the departments to provide him with adequate employment data was the major reason for HEW's rejection of Harvard's plan in May 1973. He points out that the administration did not get full cooperation from the individual departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences until Bok began to hold up as many as 50 departmental appointments.

But Leonard thinks resistance to affirmative action has in part, at least, broken down. "There has been the development of a whole new ethic, a whole new ethos that accompanies the affirmative action program that goes beyond numbers," he says. "There has finally been an acceptance at the University that diversity is a strength."

It is not clear how this "new ethos" manifests itself if not in vast increases in minority and female hiring. And the vast increases just aren't there, nor are they projected in the action plan approved by HEW. If the central administration really believed that this new spirit does now exist and if its commitment to af- firmative action as strong as Leonard suggests, one might guess that the administration might use the opportunity to rewrite and strengthen its plan. But neither Bok nor Leonard thinks there is much value in the Currier House Woman's Group suggestion that the plan undergo a new review.

Bok and Leonard began working together on the problems of the low minority and female representation at Harvard while Bok was still dean of the Law School. In 1969 Leonard left an assistant deanship at Howard University to begin his work in Cambridge. As Leonard describes it, there were very few blacks, women and Chicanos at the Law School when he came here just before the occupation of University Hall. By the time Leonard moved on to Mass Hall with Bok in 1971, the Law School was training 150 blacks, 175 women and 30 Chicanos. The dramatic increase must be credited to Leonard's persistent recruiting efforts, and Leonard himself feels this to be one of the most significant achievements of his tenure at Harvard.

The result of his efforts, Leonard feels, will be the building of "an infrastructure for a better society." By training blacks and women who go out into the world, he says, Harvard provides both these oppressed groups with the means of improving their status in this country. He believes, with the faith of the undaunted liberal, that if the right people get the right training and do the right thing, some day change is going to come.

A lot of people, both black and white, don't buy Leonard's liberal dream anymore. In some ways, Leonard, a life member of the NAACP who gave up a business career in Atlanta when he was 35 to enter Howard Law School, is a relic of an earlier age of black activism. If he and militant black students do not see eye to eye it is no accident. But Leonard persists, trying to do what he can to make the system work.

"I'm not a preacher of patience," he warns; "I'm highly impatient myself." But then comes the phrase that puts Leonard's impatience in his role in the Bok administration in context: "On the other hand, I'm also a realist.