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The Task Force on Affirmative Action: Building a Mass Movement

By the Members of the Task Force on Affirmative Action


During the late 1950s and through the decade of the '60s, the mass movement of women and oppressed nationalities to secure democratic rights forced concessions from the federal government in the way of national programs and laws. The intent was to rectify historical mistreatment and exclusion and to guarantee full opportunities and rights. Due to the mass militant pressure of women and oppressed nationalities, the "government for the people" was forced to answer calls for justice and equality, and charges of hypocrisy and failure to guarantee democratic rights. One of the important victories achieved was the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One very significant component of the Civil Rights Act is Title VII, Executive Order 11246, Revised Order 4, appropriately known as Affirmative Action.

What exactly is Affirmative Action? Affirmative Action (AA) is a program with the purpose of achieving equal opportunity for all in education and employment. AA means more than ensuring non-discrimination. Its objectives as stated in Revised Order 4 are clear:

"An Affirmative Action program is a set of specific and result oriented procedures which a contractor commits himself to apply every good faith effort. The object of these procedures plus such efforts is equal employment opportunity. Procedures without effort to make them work are meaningless; and effort; undirected by specific and meaningful procedures is inadequate. An acceptable AA program must include analysis of areas within which the contractor is deficient in the utilization of minority groups and women, and further, goals and time tables to which the contractor's good faith efforts must be directed to correct the deficiencies and, thus to increase materially the utilization of minorities and women at all levels and in all segments of his workforce where deficiencies exist."

Precisely stated, AA mandates that a greater amount of effort be made to recruit qualified female and minority applicants. AA requires that the proportion of minorities and women at any job level reflects the proportion of qualified minorities and women available. AA does not mean hiring unqualified persons, nor is it a quota system which merely requires an institution to fill a certain number of minorities and women. AA will not tolerate excuses and procrastination but immediately requires that steps be taken to eliminate all forms of discrimination, direct of indirect.

What is Harvard's relation to AA? As defined, any employer who employs 50 or more people and receives $50,000 or more in Federal funds, must have a written AA plan that meets federal requirements. According to the Oct. 20, 1975 issue of The Crimson, "Harvard last year (1974) received federal aid totaling $72.5 million --the fourth largest sum given to any U.S. university or college." Thus, Harvard is obligated to do the following:

1) Harvard must analyze the availability pools of qualified women and minorities for all areas of employment in the University in order to determine if women and minorities are being underutilized at any level.

2) Harvard must set goals for hiring more women and minorities in deficient areas.

3) Harvard must take under consideration "minorities and women not currently in the workforce having requisite skills who can be recruited thru AA measure." (Revised Order 4)

4) Harvard must take measures to actively disseminate its policy internally and externally by informing employees, minorities and women's organizations of its AA policies, publishing progress reports and articles about AA efforts and meeting with management and supervisory personnel to explain the policy and their responsibility for its effective implementation.

These are a few examples of what the federal law states--they are hardly unreasonable requirements.

However, Harvard's policy since November 1973 (Its AA plan was finally accepted by HEW after two draft rejections) has been very weak on paper and even weaker in practice.

In response to Harvard's historic practices of discrimination and its lack of progress after several years under it AA plan, the Task Force on Affirmative Action was formed in the Fall of '75. The Task Force was the culmination of the separate struggles waged on the Harvard campus by women's groups, organizations of Blacks, Chicano, Boriqua, Native American and Asian American students, and progressive white student organizations. Many of these student activists along with some progressive faculty members, recognized the major link in these struggles as the need to unite around common interests in opposing the University's practice of discrimination. Clearly, fighting discrimination has been the most important principles of unity. A favorite tactic of the Harvard administration has been to play one organization off another, to frustrate Third World solidarity, and sequester progressive white and Third World students. The formation of the Task Force has signified the unity of these groups to put an end to this situation of divide-and-rule. It unites broad forces of students, workers and faculty in a concerted movement to end inequality of students, workers and faculty in a concerted effort to end inequality and to achieve full democratic rights for all at Harvard.

It has been evident to most conscious people at Harvard that the University's response to AA has been extremely lax. Since the adoption of an AA plan, a pattern of discrimination continues to exist. In his report to the University in the Spring of 1975, Harvard's AA officer Walter J. Leonard stated: "Not only have we not progressed a great deal since Oct. 1971 (both statistically and attitudinally), but I fear we have moved backwards from that date in a number of areas."

President Bok has made it all too clear that although he may morally support AA and believes Harvard is a better place for minority students (whom he emphasizes to mean only blacks) he is unwilling to transform verbal commitments into action. He attacks the mechanism to achieve equal opportunity as a bureaucratic hassle. He staunchly refuses to admit Harvard's noncompliance or its begrudged attitude toward AA. AA is viewed as obstructing departmental autonomy, usurping departmental authority and violating the tenet that universities are special places where government should not tamper with the education of "mind and body." This stand logically gives rise to doubts about Bok's commitment to diversity as an asset to education. The college's heavy reliance on educational testing scores to identify prospective minority candidates not only contradicts Bok's Meet the Press statement of special consideration, but will lower already depressed numbers of working class blacks who come from traditionally disadvantaged schools. Bok's explanation of the declining minority enrollment as being caused by heavy competition with other institutions over small numbers totally ignores Harvard's failure to implement AA policies. It even carries the underlying premise that these small numbers of minority students in themselves are not a sign of discrimination.

Walter Leonard has allowed major appointments and promotion in associate and assistant deanships to slip by without regard to AA. He has been silent on the controversial non-tenure of Afro-American scholar Ephraim Issac. He has been given credit for increasing the number of Law School blacks (Crimson, Oct. 5, 1976) with no mention of the student activism which initiated and supported increased admissions. Moreover, having gone on record innumerable times criticizing the University's failure to improve the status of women and minorities, he has yet to do anything to turn the trend. Most likely Leondard's office will remain ineffectual because of a lack of support from the Council of Deans.

Without much trouble to see, it is undeniable that women and minorities have not made many significant gains. We can see that black student admissions are declining, from 7 per cent in the Class of '76, to below 6 per cent ever since.

A 4:1 male/female ratio was maintained until the Class of 1977 when the 2.5:1 ratio was adopted. Even with "sex blind" admissions, the ratio is only expected to reach 60/40 men to women in ten years or more.

For recruitment, although the vast majority of minority students attend inner city high school, fewer than 30 per cent of the blacks admitted at Harvard come from public schools.

For academic staff, although 70 per cent of Harvard' faculty are women, fewer than 10 per cent of the junior faculty and 3 per cent of the tenured faculty are women. The proportion of tenured blacks has declined from 1.6 per cent to 1.4 per cent during the Affirmative Action period.

For non-teaching employees, of the lowest ten salary grades, 82 per cent of those employed are women. Anyone working at Radcliffe (approximately 95 per cent female employees) is likely to earn less than men in comparable positions at Harvard.

In curriculum, Harvard offers 3000 courses, but only three of them cover women. For the seven years of existence for the Afro-American Department only two professors have been tenured. The precarious state of the Department is evinced in an alarming turnover rate of faculty.

One accomplishment of the Task Force last year was the compilation and presentation of 19 serious breeches in federal guidelines by Harvard University of its own AA plan. In a document presented to the Office of Civil Rights Compliance Review last spring, the Task Force cited specific discrepancies between Harvard University's current employment practices and the contents of its AA plan; specific discrepancies between its AA plan and the requirements of Revised Order 4; and cases of individual employees who have been victimized by either overt racial and sexual discrimination, or by employment practices which as a result discriminatory. The report, in effect, stripped away Harvard's liberal fig-leaf.

But the Task Force's most important work has been to rally students, workers and progressive faculty around the defense of democratic rights. Last year's two demonstrations pointed the way towards a political struggle. We have learned that political struggles establish a firmer base of unity than economic struggles. One of the cheapest things Harvard can give away is money. Developing a firm, committed political unity directed against the objective conditions of sexism, racism and national oppression is what students should strive for.

The Task Force has always held that total dependence upon legal channels is restrictive, requiring exceeding amounts of time and enormous financial expenses. More importantly, it must be recognized that laws in favor of oppressed people are a product of mass pressure. Without a mass movement, many legal victories are quickly and easily undermined. AA is one very beneficial mechanism for bringing about advancements for women and minorities which needs to be protected.

Yet we now stand at a time of ideological and political onslaught upon the gains of women and minorities led, in many cases, by the ideologues of racism and sexism at Harvard. In their ideological plans to invalidate AA, they are in effect calling for its abolition. In publications and lectures, Nathan Glazer propagates the view that AA is an instrument of unfairness. He bases his views on what he interprets as the progress of individual blacks into the system as a result of bootstrap pulling and the flexibility of the system operating with a sentiment for equal opportunity. He totally ignores the masses of urban working class blacks still earning one-half the wages of their white counterparts. To Glazer, AA represents unnecessary piles of bureaucratic headaches. We are told women and minorities have gained too much to the extent that "reverse racism" and affirmative discrimination now is rampant. This anti-AA propaganda is a rationalization for the stepped-up attacks on democratic rights and retrenchment that would send us back to the days when Harvard was synonomous with being white, male and rich.

In the past several weeks, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance has proposed major revisions of AA that could abolish AA in many industries and universities. In the proposed revisions, companies with less than 100 employees or $100,000 in contracts (versus 50 employees and $50,000 in contracts) are exempted from filing written AA plans. In addition, any employer receiving less that $10 million in contracts is also exempted from a prior review. This measure lets off the hook all but a half a dozen universities in the country. The campaign against AA, the call for drastic reductions in minority and women recruitment and admissions, the discrediting and weakening of Third World Studies, the growing repression and attacks in Third World communities are all linked in the current thrust against democratic rights and the sharpening of national, racial and sexual division. The stakes in the AA struggle are high.

What must be done to stem this reactionary tide? We must draw from the experiences and lessons of our struggles to realize once again only in mass movements have already won democratic rights been defended and additional progressive improvements been obtained. Because the attack on AA is a national campaign directed against a national program, the only possible means to deter this campaign involves building a mass student movement in defense of democratic rights.

It has been six months since the OCR compliance review and there has been no definite word. But we do not expect much in the way of enforcement by OCR. Its buddy-buddy relationship with Harvard makes it unlikely that the government will do more than slap Harvard on the hand and "encourage" it to make a "good faith effort" to solve the most blatant problems. But just as a band-aid cannot cure cancer, neither can a slap on the hand stop Harvard's historic policies of national, racial and sexual discrimination. The attacks on democratic rights exist beyond the bounds of Harvard and must be met in a movement not only among students, but also among workers and professional employees.

The announced departure of Walter Leonard, the University's chief AA officer, will create many uncertainties as to the University's commitment to AA. Although the TFAA has repeatedly requested participation in the selection process of a new officer, Bok has merely conceded to accept "advice." Moreover, a member of the search board, Phyllis Keller, has already publicly tried to rationalize the University's inaction in indirect response to the TFAA report to OCR last spring (Harvard Gazette, May 21, 1976). The TFAA questions the sincerity of these search board members in support of a strong AA program and their commitment to minorities and women. Federal AA guidelines strongly recommend that minorities and women (the "affected" classes) have input in the implementation, evaluation and monitering of an institution's AA program. This has not been Harvard's practice.

Nevertheless, the TFAA will continue to press for a major role in the selection of a new officer and demand a new job description with clearly delegated authority to enforce AA. There will also be an educational forum January 13th to introduce students to TFAA and AA. As the Task Force views it, key struggles for building the student movement must be 1) the opposition to the attacks on AA (the test case being at Harvard for the rest of the nation), 2) the determination of a replacement for Walter Leonard and formal, direct input into the AA structure of this University, 3) the demand for a new AA plan, 4) development of the struggle for greater recruitment, admissions and financial aid programs, 5) self-determination of the Afro-Am. Studies Department and finally, 6) the creations of Chicano-Boricua, Native American, Asian American and Women's Studies.

In the '60s, the student movement contributed significantly to the larger social mass movements. This remains the case for the '70s as we engage in a fierce struggle to protect hard-won rights and gains now under attack.

The fight for AA must be placed in the overall fight for democratic rights. An aggressive, visible student movement must be built to safeguard rights and press forward the elimination of discrimination and oppression. Harvard must be seen as the nexus of this reactionary campaign and so it is only appropriate Harvard be the site for a new era in the student movement.

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