A Matter of Reticence?

Put 165 members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in one room and give them a controversial issue like affirmative action to discuss. You'd expect to witness an intellectual discussion of the first magnitude, to see tempers flare, to hear compelling, well-supported arguments. You'd expect a subject like affirmative action to spark a heated debate reminiscent of the contentious Faculty meetings of the 1960s.

You would also, no doubt, be disappointed.

The Faculty has displayed an unusual reticence when faced with the complexities of hiring more minority and women professors. Certainly, affirmative action is a complicated social question, but is it too difficult for a group of highly intelligent people accustomed to grappling with a variety of thorny academic and scientific questions?

"The average Harvard professor has found it somewhat uncomfortable to discuss race and gender publicly," observes James Q. Wilson, Shattuck Professor of Government. "The Faculty on a question like this is easily intimidated by its own instincts. They want to do the right thing. But the question is, What is the right thing?"

Wilson showed a characteristic lack of intimidation during the Faculty's most recent discussion of affirmative action, when he tried to answer that question. At the Faculty's regular meeting last February, Wilson suggested that the "right thing" was to ensure the fairness of hiring procedures and to conduct as extensive a search as possible for candidates for Faculty appointments. Beyond that, Wilson argued later on The Washington Post's op-ed page, excellence should be the sole, or nearly sole, criterion in making hiring decisions. Wilson also spelled out what he considered an alternative goal: the desirability of having a more diverse faculty.


Because a fair hiring process does not necessarily lead to diversity, those two goals create a potential conflict. That conflict, Wilson hoped, would spark a general discussion. "These are delicate matters to discuss with candor," Wilson acknowledged, "but if not in this Faculty, where, and if not now, when?"

Despite the dramatic appeal, only a handful of Faculty members spoke at that meeting. One of them, Harvey C. Mansfield, professor of Government, asked the Faculty to consider the following scenario (as recorded in the minutes of the February 10 meeting): "A woman, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, grew up to be unspeakably beautiful and married a man as rich and as handsome as Otto Eckstein. She attended Brearley School, Radcliffe College, and she got a Ph.D. from Harvard. Then when she went on the job market, she was not considered as an individual with her merits, but she became a representative, a role model, and in this guise collected compensation. Compensation for all the injustices that had been done to women for generations, or centuries, or even millenia. Who would pay that compensation?"

Mansfield then set up a comparison case, that of "a young man, born in abject poverty of academic parents. He attended North High School in Columbus, Ohio. After that there was nothing for him, but to go to Dartmouth, and, as a crowning disappointment, to get his Ph.D. from Yale. From this pinnacle of educational disadvantage, he went to the job market, and he paid. He paid the compensation that the woman had collected, because he was not considered as an individual with his merits either, but as a representative of a class or a group. The person who collected the compensation did not suffer the injustice; the person who paid the compensation did not commit the injustice." Where, Mansfield wanted to know, was the justice in that?

The Faculty responded with laughter at what was a purposefully amusing comparison. Mansfield, remembering the examples, chuckles about them even now. But under the humorous veneer, Mansfield was trying to ask a serious question; he believes strongly that affirmative action leads to injustices like the one he described. The Faculty did not pick up on Mansfield's question, though, and he says he came away from that meeting unsatisfied because his contentions were not addressed.

Nathan I. Huggins, chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department, also spoke at that meeting. Rather than address Wilson's main point about goals, Huggins suggested a different question: Should Harvard undertake a deliberate policy to attract minorities and women to its faculty? The key word, Huggins stressed, was "deliberate." He said the University should put forth that effort because it was the right thing to do and because it would improve the quality of the University.

Huggins takes issue with Wilson's emphasis on the hiring process, stressing instead the importance of Faculty members' attitudes. "No one can find anything wrong with the mechanism," Huggins explains. "I don't think