An Equivocal Statement


THE SCENE remains embedded in the minds of many who were there. Henry Rosovsky, dean of the Faculty, widely perceived as a moderate on affirmative action, suddenly found himself at a February 1981 Faculty meeting launching into a vigorous philosophical defense of affirmative action in hiring, under fire from two veteran professors who charged him with undermining meritocracy. "We should make an effort without a decline in increase the number of women and minorities on this Faculty," Rosovsky said. Affirmative action, he stressed, was "the policy of the land and the policy of this University."

Last week, 14 months after his verbal confrontation with Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 and James Q. Wilson, Rosovsky again took the floor to defend affirmative action at Harvard. This time, however, his point was some what different. No longer was aggressive enforcement of affirmative action guidelines the policy of the land, the dean's annual report noted. The Justice Department of the Reagan Administration had retrenched significantly from the Carter Administration's vigorous enforcement of policies that often amounted to "race and sex-based quotas."

With the withdrawal of government pressure, Rosovsky wrote, "I see all the more reason for us to develop more sensitive and realistic [internal] ways of accounting for the fairness of our [hiring] practices" Indeed, he contended, the slackening of federal scrutiny could actually help the cause of affirmative action. The reason: The results of federal regulation "have been cumbersome, coercive, sometimes counter-productive, and have often engendered a cynical acquiesence."

Rosovsky's contention that the Administration's more laissezfaire approach to affirmative action represents an opportunity for Harvard, then, rests on two premises. The first is that federal pressure to increase the number of qualified minorities and women in academia had actually backfired. That contention may be correct, certainly federal codes mandating endless statistical reports and detailed procedures haven't done anything to streamline the Harvard bureaucracy. But at root it is a minor contention. No one would seriously suggest that the resources freed up by even the most drastic retrenchment in federal requirements actually will dramatically facilitate the hiring of women or minorities Reducing the "immense burden of paperwork" will make the lives of department chairmen and search committees more pleasant. Whether it will make them more efficient purveyors of affirmative action seems another story entirely.

The dean's second premise is that the University's drive to attract faculty who are not white and male will not subside in the absence of federal pressure. Yet his own report acknowledges that "outside pressure" may have been initially responsible for Harvard's internal monitoring of its hiring practices. And with the persistence of selfstyled meritocrats on the Faculty, it is by no means obvious that an unpressured Harvard would continue to strive for truly color-blind and sex-blind hiring practices.


IN NOT CONDEMNING the President's relaxation of a affirmative action guidelines, though. Rosovsky's report lays itself open to a more fundamental criticism. The Administration's laid back approach to enforcing hiring codes is only one facet of its broader attack on the use of need as a criterion and diversity as a goal in higher education.

The President's package of and cuts, for instance, reflects his peculiarly static notion of equal opportunity, his Administration contends that the government's responsibility to defend everyone's right to attend college does not translate to a responsibility to pay for it. The evaporation of federal affirmative action codes thus represents not Administration confidence that private institutions will voluntarily seek diversity, as Rosovsky's report would suggest. Rather, it suggests a fundamentally flawed view of equality. In that version, rich and poor have equal education privileges--though the latter cannot pay-and white and Black have similarly equal rights to education--though the latter's history of being saddled with economic and social disabilities besmirches the very notion of equality.

Rosovsky's pleasure at the removal of the shackles of federal regulation thus fails to place that step in the context of the President's frontal attack on equal access to education. That in itself suggests, certain ironies. The dean, for instance, rightly continues to blame the lack of minority professors here on the dearth of minorities who have attended graduate schools. His solution is for universities like Harvard to encourage young minority group members to enroll in graduate schools. But the President's own package of policies--from aid cuts to looser federal regulations--would actively discourage such enrollment. Already those cuts have taken their toll. The College's most recent applicant statistics suggest an alarming drop in the number of poor applicants; needy students, many of whom were doubtless minorities, evidently were scared off by the Administration's aid cuts.

Though Harvard would like the President to stick by his looser regulations while not tampering with student aid, it cannot have its way on both counts. Reagan's steps constitute a package that will restrict access to education in the twin names of federalism and meritocracy. For Harvard to oppose one strand of that package--the aid cuts--while supporting its looser scrutiny of universities, smacks of an opportunism of convenience, not a true commitment to equal access in education.

THE ROLE of a university in an era of federal retrenchment from the lofty goals of the past must not be to pick and choose among various components, but to oppose the package of reactionism wholesale. If Harvard is to have any clout over federal access-to-education policy, it will not come in persuading other schools that its distinction between opposing aid cuts and supporting looser hiring standards is a principled one.

Even if Harvard could be counted on to promote affirmative action aggressively on the home front in the absence of federal scrutiny, a questionable suggestion, other schools would not. The University can certainly tolerate the additional paperwork generated by federal hiring regulations; it cannot thrive, however, as a community whose social and economic diversity is imperiled.

A more effective dean's report would have sounded a clear call to all educational institutions. It would have urged a blanket rejection of the President's whole package of educational reforms by suggesting what it really is: a series of measures that would effectively restrict access anew by ignoring racial and economic barriers. The issue of affirmative action cannot be divorced from that of the aid cuts. The flaw in Dean Rosovsky's report is that it tries to suggest such a distinction where none exists.