Anyone with a strong opinion about affirmative action could have learned something from a sparsely-attended but thoughtful talk given last week by Harvard's Associate Vice President James S. Hoyte '65.
Hoyte, a Harvard-trained lawyer known to friends around the University as "Jamie," has a thoroughly modern job; he is the University's top bean counter on diversity.
He is also a very smart and articulate man. That intelligence was shown off at the talk, as Hoyte masterfully used administrative speak to defend his bosses (including President Neil L. Rudenstine) while making a powerful and insightful critique of several basic University policies.
Hoyte alternately gives comfort and discomfort to those of us who are deeply suspicious of hiring and other preferences for minorities and women. When I asked him how Harvard defines affirmative action, Hoyte emphasized that preferences are not a part of that definition. "Affirmative action at Harvard...[means] we extend the possibilities of applicants...At Harvard, we always hire [the person] who we believe to be the most qualified."
That is an uncontroversial concept of affirmative action with which even the strongest opponents of preferences could have few quibbles. But then, Hoyte proceeded to show, through detailed figures and study, how Harvard's "affirmative action" policy has led to slow and uneven progress in creating a diverse campus, particularly among the faculty.
The numbers seemed to make a persuasive case for more direct hiring preferences, even quotas. But here Hoyte surprised again. "I don't think we have to move to quotas. I don't think it's necessary, and...I don't think it's helpful."
How does Hoyte resolve this apparent contradiction? Brilliantly. He wants--though in this Roweian era of Massachusetts Hall obfuscation, he couldn't just come right out and say it--broad (but not race-based) changes in Harvard's system of tenure, hiring and career development.
"One thing that would help a lot would be to have widespread, systemic changes in the way we tenure." Hoyte said, and continued: "Our culture is characterized by a lack of career development assistance. This results in reliance on informal networks of assistance. And we know that such networks tend to work against minorities."
Hoyte's ideas are appealing because they attack the malaise of hidebound tradition that plagues our campus. He all but endorsed a real tenure track, which would result in Harvard tenuring homegrown scholars before their hair turns gray. He argued for stronger career development programs, so that moving up the administrative and academic ladder involves more than just kissing the asses of the white males in power. He suggested that the ad hoc process which generally decides whether a scholar gets tenure may systematically eliminate scholars of diverse ideas and backgrounds.
There will not be progress, Hoyte warned, "until we're willing to do things on the faculty side in areas like that." That is radical, and that is right. Instead of direct hiring preferences for minorities, Harvard could improve its diversity profile by opening its mind to new ways of doing things. Many of the best appointments the University has made recently have been scholars who serve in more than one faculty (Leon Higginbotham is a prime example); several of these scholars are people of color.
Of course, Hoyte hardly sounded optimistic about movement on this front. These days, the top two goals of the embattled Mr. Rudenstine are to 1) stay healthy and 2) rebuild his relationship with the faculty to the point that when professors pronounce his last name, the four-letter modifier they choose will be "Neil." Bigger plans (even much needed reforms of the tenure process and the University's policy on scientific research) will have to wait, perhaps for a new president.
That is too bad. For Jamie Hoyte is a man of wisdom and good ideas. Harvard should give him room.
Joe Mathews' column appears on alternate Mondays.