A Defensive Posture


"The question is not whether all men will ultimately be equal--that they cerainly will not--but whether progress may not go on steadily, if slowly, till, by occupation at least, every man is a gentleman. I hold that it may, and that it will." Alfred Marshall, 1873

"The more confident the claim of education to be able to sift human material during the early years of life, the more is mobility concentrated within those years, and consequently limited thereafter.

The right of the citizen in this process of selection and mobility is the right to equality, of opportunity. Its aim is to eliminate hereditary privilege. In essence it is the equal right to display and develop differences, or inequalities; the equal right to be recognized as unequal."   T.H. Marshall, 1949

TO APPRECIATE the kinds of difficulties President Bok encountered in preparing his latest open letter on issues of race, consider one of his footnotes. "Some writers have argued for the enrollment of significant numbers of minority students as a form of compensation for injustices visited upon racial groups especially during earlier periods of our history," he writes. After mentioning "many troublesome questions" raised by such arguments, Bok says. "Instead of embracing such theories, therefore. I prefer to rely on different, more forward-looking reasons to explain our policies."

What are these "more forward-looking reasons" if not improvements over past and present inequalities and injustices? In his case for diversity in admissions. Bok points to increased racial understanding at the University and the contribution minority graduates can make to society during the next generation. But the reason racial understanding needs to be dramatically increased is the perfidious misunderstanding minorities have encountered, and the importance that correcting this can have for our society.


There are other examples of Bok's essentially defensive posture in his letter. When he strongly reaffirms his support for Afro-American studies, he feels compelled to make "clear that we regard this effort not as a questionable field of study nor as a political concession..." words directed at those who harbor doubts about its validity as a discipline or the justification for its existence. Dean Rosovsky, after all, has described the birth of Afro-Am as "an academic Munich." Perhaps it is just an honest omission, but nowhere does Bok assert a commitment to the Afro-Am Department. Or perhaps he wants to avoid stating his commitment to a department that might be phased into an interdisciplinary committee, the future some undergraduates fear for Afro-Am.

THERE ARE OTHER gramatical foibles in the tautly-worded, eight-page letter. In spelling out his opposition to earmarking. Harvard funds for a Third World center akin to those that exist at Princeton, Yale, Brown and Stanford, Bok states, "I would not attach a high priority to any project that might serve, at least symbolically, to emphasize a separation between different races. 'The phrase, "at least symbolically" springs up from the paper, providing only one example of the highly-qualified language characterizing Bok's text. Whereas Afro-Am is definitely not a "questionable field of study" nor "a political concession," a Third World center might stress separatism--"at least symbolically." These three words typify a letter littered with qualifications, a letter whose tone is for the most part defensive and at time cynical. Prefacing his conclusion, Bok adopts an almost apologetic tone--"I hope that I have not portrayed the subject of race at Harvard as a series of awkward obligations to be discharged and burdensome problems to be solved."

More telling are the words, "to emphasize a separation between different races." Bok's use of the word between may indicate he had in mind only two races--presumably, Black and white--or it may be again just a technicality. But I nitpick to prove a point; for separation within a given race has long been acceptable at Harvard. "The jocks play around Soldiers Field, the actors play around the Loeb, and the WHRBies play around WHRB, and the academics play around Widener, and the Crimeds play around here," as one Crimson editor said in 1971. And let us not forget that paragon of separatism, the final club, where separation between the sexes is not only accepted, but even, glorified. There is even an inter-club committee monitored by Archie C. Epps III, dean of students.

Don't get Bok wrong, Referring to a possible Third World center financed by the University, he says, "I would not want to forbid this type of facility any more than I would wish to deny the right of any group of students with similar interests or backgrounds to gather together informally in pursuit of common interests." But he continues, "on the other hand, I don not advocate investing Harvard's resources in such a project." The unfortunate reality is that Third World students here can not count on a pool of affluent alumni from which to solicit funds the same way, say, the football team or the Owl Club do.

If Bok feels this way about a Third World center, why did he form a committee last spring to investigate the possibility? Why does he now pledge only to "advocate support" for the committee's recommondation--the establishment of a Foundation to improve race relations--only "if there is genuine interest"? (Bok does not say from whom this "genuine interest" must come.) And why will he "advocate support" only "modestly at the beginning but more substantially over time if the effort attracts sustained commitment and achieves constructive results"? (Bok does not say exactly what will constitute "constructive results.") One can only surmise that Bok commissioned the Games committee to appease minority students and defuse potential protest. And his current lukewarm stance toward the Foundation can be explained by a desire to appease the Faculty and defuse potential objection to that much-publicized anathema, the emphasis of separation between different races.

A FULLER understanding of the dilemmas Bok faces when confronted with a plethora of interest groups emerges from the style of his prose. The need to qualify and justify stems from the need to appeal to a wide variety of constituents, ranging from the Faculty to administrators to majority students to minority students. And he must do all this under the glare of a national spotlight. One professor confided recently that many faculty members--though none dare say so in public for fear of being branded as racist--believe that Bok has gone through the crudest of machinations to win over vocal minority students. In fact, the professor added, it is a favorite topic of private discussions among faculty members. In such an atmosphere, Bok deserves sympathy for his difficult position and praise for his willingness to write open letters.

But such an atmosphere sadly underscores the problems with race issues at Harvard. If the University's faculty, who are supposedly numbered among the most enlightened persons in the world, can lambast Bok in private for something so innocent as a fence-sitting open letter or the establishment of a Foundation, then Fair Harvard is not as fair as it should be. Even if we accept the premise of Bok's earlier letters, that universities as institutions should not take moral stands, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that the individuals who compose the community, those dedicated to the primary purpose of "the discovery and transmission of knowledge," should have personal morals.

THE AVOIDANCE OF conflict and the minimization of risk make for Machiavollian morals--the celebration of the prudent and the pragmatic. Caught between students who desire a larger commitment to their particular needs--increased minority admissions, more minority faculty, a Third World center--and a disdainful though reticent group of Harvard citizens who shy away from specters of separatism--this group tends to uphold the idea of meritocracy--Bok must steer a hazardous middle course.

But he is trapped trying to stay afloat in his sea of caution. Introducing the section of his letter on race relations, he lists equality of opportunity as the first of three "pertinent objectives," and then adds, "We have come furthest in providing equal opportunity regardless of race; certainly, the University does not engage in any overt practice or policies of a discriminatory nature." But covert and unspoken discrimination remains an insidious reality. And if the aim of equality of opportunity is to eliminate hereditary privilege, as T.H. Marshall said, why are minority students with a small alumni pool not forwarded the funds for a Third World center? If, furthermore, equality of opportunity is the equal right to display and develop differences--the equal right to be recognized as unequal--why is the emphasis of separation between different races in cultural terms so frightening to so many? Why is President Bok forced to write a letter devoid of meaningful suggestions when he could put himself on the side of meaningful progress?