Affirmative Action Pioneer Walter J. Leonard Dies at 86

Leonard worked to increase the diversity of admissions at Harvard and create a model for affirmative action policies.

Walter J. Leonard, who drove the adoption of affirmative action admission policies at Harvard and is credited with increasing student body diversity at the University, died in Kensington, Md. on Dec. 8. He was 86.

His wife, Betty S. Leonard, told The New York Times the cause of death was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Walter was a pioneer in advocating for the values of inclusion that are critical to higher education in our nation,” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 wrote in an emailed statement. “He served as an enduring role model for everyone committed to ensuring that higher education remains open to students from all backgrounds.”

Leonard arrived at Harvard in 1969 from Howard University, taking the position of assistant dean and assistant director of admissions at Harvard Law School. There, he focused on increasing the diversity of the Law School’s student body, particularly emphasizing the recruitment of minority and female students.

In a later interview with The Crimson, Leonard said he thought the increase in number of black, female, and Latino students attending the Law School during his tenure was one of his most significant accomplishments.


In 1971, when Derek C. Bok transitioned from Law School Dean to University President, Leonard followed him to Massachusetts Hall to serve as his special assistant. Leonard remained in that position until leaving Harvard in 1977 to become president of Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville.

As special assistant to Bok, Leonard served as Harvard’s affirmative action officer—or what one protesting student called the school’s “affirmative action czar”—writing an affirmative action plan for the University, and at times openly critiquing its treatment of women and minorities.

Part of his University-wide plan allowed Harvard’s admissions departments to begin considering race and ethnicity on a case-by-case basis in the admissions process, just as they considered other factors. The plan became a model for other universities.

Leonard “set in place something that a lot of schools tried to model their affirmative action policies on,” said Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. “Anybody who knows much about affirmative action knows that his efforts to create an atmosphere of difference in terms of the composition of the student body at Harvard were significant not just at Harvard, but for the entire country.”

The plan has long commanded respect in legal circles, and the Supreme Court, in a 1978 decision, cited what it called “the Harvard plan” as a constitutional model for an actively race-conscious admissions policy.

Today, Harvard’s policies are being challenged in court by groups who allege the College’s admissions process discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Another ongoing affirmative action case, Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin, could set a precedent for Harvard’s lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments for the Fisher case, in which a white woman who was denied admission alleges the school’s admissions department discriminates based on race.

Outside of drafting Harvard’s affirmative action plan, Leonard was an advocate for students of color, penning a Crimson opinion editorial in which he praised universities for increasing their number of minority students, but noted that these students faced particular scrutiny once they arrive on campus.

“Minority students within predominantly white institutions of higher learning have become the most visible people on earth. Their tower, instead of being of ivory, is of the most transparent glass,” Leonard wrote. “They are tested, touted, tracked, and tantalized with visions of glorious opportunity.”

Despite his role in shaping Harvard’s affirmative action policies, Leonard left the University concerned that Harvard’s efforts to create a diverse campus were not moving quickly enough.

“Year after year I still see barriers to progress,” Leonard said at a farewell dinner before leaving Harvard. “I don’t understand how an institution so rich, so endowed, and so blessed can be so calloused.”

—Staff writer Aidan F. Langston can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AidanLangston.


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