Investigating Harvard

Government Agencies Slowly Check Out a Bunch Of Discrimination Charges

Back in 1973, Donna Napoli, a Harvard Ph.D. Italian, tried to get an assistant professorship in the Romance Languages Department. The department gave the job to another candidate, a man, and explained to Napoli that her knowledge of Italian was inadequate for the requirements of the position. Napoli then complained to state and federal agencies, charging that Harvard had discriminated against her on the basis of her sex and her national origin, which she lists as American.

By its own count, the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination (MCAD) has only 12 complaints pending against the University, some of which, like Napoli's, have been pending for the last several years. Walter J. Leonard, special assistant to President Bok and the architect of Harvard's affirmative action plan, however, has a list of 30 complaints pending or recently concluded. Edward W. Powers, director of Employee Relations, says there have been about 40 such complaints in recent years, which he says amounts to a "rash" of cases. There isn't much to suggest that the MCAD is hiding the others, but there is a great deal to suggest that the severe budget cuts and charges of incompetence that have plagued the MCAD staff lately may account for the discrepancies.

Both Powers and Leonard, as well as Daniel Steiner '54, the University's general counsel, are quick to point out that for an employer of Harvard's size--11,000 employees--12, or 30, or 40 complaints is a very small number: "de minimis," Leonard says. They point to the fact that Harvard tries to deal with such cases through its own grievance procedures while the facts surrounding the complaint are still fresh. An "in-house" investigation in many cases brings the employee with a discrimination complaint into Leonard's office to meet with him and Powers. Leonard says he is often able to clear up a misunderstanding or "something wrong" without the complaint having to go through any formal procedure, either at Harvard, the MCAD, HEW, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the other federal agency charged with looking into employment cases.

Leonard is especially sensitive to such complaints because of his responsibility for affirmative action at Harvard. Under President Johnson's executive order 11246, organizations, including universities, receiving government contracts over $50,000 must show written proof of their committment to overcoming past discrimination against women and minorities. If proof is found lacking, revocation of the contracts may ensue.

The three agencies responsible for handling discrimination complaints in Massachusetts have joint-filing agreements with one another to prevent investigators in each group from "running up the same tree," John G. Bynoe, Director of the Regional Civil Rights Office of the HEW, says. Offhand, Bynoe won't say exactly how many cases involving Harvard are on his desk, but he says most of them are class-action suits that "list 22 universities as discriminators against women" and minorities. Bynoe says his office "doesn't consider them complaints. You almost get what you call people throwing everything into the bag. NOW (the National Organization for Women) sends in a complaint every other day," Bynoe says, adding that if his investigators "ran around to sixty institutions" to look into the complaints, they would never have time to do anything else. "That's not discrimination," Bynoe says. "Discrimination is what happens to an individual."


HEW is responsible for enforcing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments prohibiting sex discrimination in schools and employment, in addition to executive order 11246. HEW can only deal with government contractors, since a termination of contracts is its only method of enforcement. If the MCAD or the EEOC finds probable cause for a complaint against Harvard, it is an occasion for HEW to investigate the possibility that discrimination exists throughout the institution. While some of the discrimination cases on record at the MCAD appear weak, the lawyers in Mass Hall can't afford to ignore any of them. "Some cases which have been heard in the courts have seemed to carry little weight and have resulted in important decisions," Leonard warns.

One such case, perhaps, is that of Franziska Hosken, a designer and self-styled urban critic who claims she was refused a teaching appointment at the Graduate School of Design because of her sex. A Harvard Ph.D. in Architecture, Hosken had been trying to get a job at Harvard since the late sixties, although the GSD told her that it was not searching for anyone and that she did not qualify to teach in any of its departments. She applied for "a position" and was refused so many times that Dean Maurice Kilbridge said he would no longer answer her inquiries. "We have gone over this with you to the point of boredom," he wrote her in 1972.

Hosken was determined to make her treatment at the GSD a test case against "old boy" hiring practices at Harvard that she believes discriminate against minorities and women. She waited until Bok took office in 1971--"there was no sense in doing this with Pusey," she says--and brought her complaint to HEW. After a year's investigation, HEW found that Hosken had suffered discrimination. Her case was "strange," however, according to Bob Randolph of the HEW Boston Civil Rights Office. "We didn't feel she was discriminated against because of her sex; the problems in this case were more personal." From an investigation of Hosken's complaint, however, HEW found reason to believe that GSD hiring practices did discriminate against minorities and women.

At HEW's request, Kilbridge says, the GSD "spent hundreds of hours" preparing stacks of personnel records to demonstrate that it had considered Hosken's qualifications along with those of other applicants. That was three years ago--"they go away and never come back," Kilbridge says. HEW will be back, however, in the next few months to get additional information from the GSD and other departments.

Steiner says the investigations in Donna Napoli's case required more of his time than most of the cases MCAD lists. Napoli claims that the chairman of the Department of Romance Languages and Literature, Dante Della Terza, refused to hire her over a man who was "not at all as well qualified" as herself because she was a woman and not a native Italian. "Had I been exactly the same person, but a male Italian, I would have been hired. It was not a question of my qualifications," she says.

In Della Terza's judgment, however, Napoli's poor ability in Italian disqualified her. "I never discriminated against anyone in my life," he says. "I feel very strongly that I helped my former student as much as I could," he says, both in her candidacy in his department and, through calls to colleagues, in her search for jobs at other universities. Della Terza told the MCAD Napoli "makes such mistakes in speaking and writing Italian that we could not in good conscience allow her to teach courses more sophisticated than Elementary Italian and perhaps Intermediate Italian." Moreover, he said, Napoli's knowledge of contemporary Italian culture was too scant for her to teach more advanced literature courses and to be able to substitute for other members of the department. In 1972, when she was applying for an instructor's job, she agreed with Della Terza, writing him, "Your criticisms of my Italian are only too valid."

Napoli says that when she wrote that letter, almost two years before she brought her complaint against Harvard, she was a "very scared graduate student. I hadn't published anything, I had no self-confidence; I only had Della Terza as a judge." Now an assistant professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, and with twelve published articles under her belt, Napoli remembers that "the idea of being humble and insignificant before a great professor is typical of female graduate students at Harvard. For a long time after I left Harvard, I asked myself, 'Do I have illusions about myself?' Now I know I'm good enough."

Napoli also accuses the Romance Languages Department of going to the length of changing its course offerings in order to avoid hiring her. She claims that the department, "without a conscious policy to deemphasize linguistics," redefined the position she sought so that it could use the male candidate's background rather than seeking a replacement for the "romance linguist" who had occupied the post in the past.

To refute Harvard's contention that she was not qualified, Napoli cities her teaching experience part-time at Smith College and Harvard Extension School, and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the two years after she got her Ph.D. in 1973. At UNC, Napoli says, she taught Italian and linguistics to a class of native Italian graduate students, and "no one ever complained" about her language ability. The real reason Harvard did not hire her, Napoli thinks, is Della Terza's attitude toward women in graduate school. "Della Terza is not aware that he discriminated against me. He's convinced that a woman's place is in the home, raising children and having a nice life. He respects the intelligence of the women in the department, but he feels they don't need their careers and won't make a contribution to scholarship. He actually told me that the man he hired had a wife and two children to support, while I had my husband to support me. In his head, that was the right way to make a decision," Napoli says.

Della Terza says he has devoted countless hours to demonstrating that his decision not to hire Napoli was based on merit alone, and he is pained by her suggestions to the contrary. "I see that you are involving me rather directly in your strongly polemical approach to the problem of your candidacy," he wrote to her in 1973. When she was his student, he went on to remind her, she "protested vehemently and dramatically" when he told her that only "long and patient training" could overcome her linguistic difficulties. He dismissed her claim that the department changed its offerings in order to hire the male candidate. "I never thought of organizing the department around a single case, but only to meet its continuing needs," he says. "The future of our studies is much more important than one person."

To resolve the issue of Napoli's ability in Italian, Steiner has suggested to the EEOC that samples of her writing be tested by a group of experts with no connection to either the complainant or the University. The agency is considering his offer, Steiner says. Meanwhile, Harvard would have tried to make amends on its own if it had found discrimination, Steiner claims. "I press people to tell me everything. I said to Della Terza, 'If there's something wrong here, you've got to tell me.'"

Steiner says he doubts the EEOC will find probable cause for Napoli's complaint, but if it does, she and the University will be given a chance to make a voluntary settlement. Steiner will not speculate what sort of an agreement they might reach. Napoli's husband wrote the Commission that Harvard could redress his wife's grievance by revoking the contested appointment and hiring Napoli, or by creating another assistant professorship for her, or by awarding her compensation for the difference between her earnings and the salary she would have made in the five-year Harvard appointment. Napoli now says she doubts she would want a post. "It would be awful to teach in the Italian Department after what has happened," she says. "What I would like is money if the department isn't willing to hire me."

But most women and minorities who experience discrimination at Harvard on the faculty level usually don't do anything about it, according to one source who asked not to be identified. Faculty women are reluctant to complain about discrimination for fear of being "blackballed all over the country," the source says. Phyllis Keller, equal employment officer for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, says that Donna Napoli was the last person to complain to her about discrimination on the faculty. Most of Keller's work involved reviewing faculty appointments to see that they meet affirmative action guidelines. She feels that the overt forms of discrimination at Harvard have "receded substantially" and that the "spirit" of affirmative action is driving out the more subtle forms.

The people affected by what they see as discrimination are often the "worst enemy," the source says. Often they are looking for "a nice big piece of the pie for me," and as soon as they are given tenure, "their convictions go down the drain. They begin to say the whole thing has been blown out of proportion." The problem with affirmative action, however, seems to be that people expect it will end discrimination. An affirmative action plan is for the most part a data-keeping requirement that can indicate the existence of discrimination. With this kind of ammunition, one law student says, people are encouraged to file employment discrimination cases when they feel they have been treated unfairly. But the backlog of such agencies as the MCAD, with more than 2,000 cases behind and without a dime left to conduct costly public hearings and the EEOC, with a national backlog of 21,000 cases, does not suggest they will get very quick satisfaction.