Commentary Magazine

Quotas and the Universities

To the Editor:

Joseph Adelson [“Living with Quotas,” May] has highlighted an important but little noted aspect of the problem of special minority admissions in our universities: the widespread unwillingness of university administrators to provide, even to their own faculties, the information that would be necessary for evaluating and improving these programs. Never has a free society coupled such a large experiment in education with such absence of feedback on the results. With academic leaders setting this example, no wonder an individual who dares to offer criticisms of methods in this area runs the risk of being labeled an enemy of the very goal of racial justice.

But in seeking the cause of this tragic situation Mr. Adelson assigns responsibility in rather too personal terms. For example, in calling attention to the violent reaction at Harvard Medical School to an editorial of mine, which cited a particularly egregious instance of the lowering of standards in medical education, he ascribes the public censuring of my action to “the more thuggish elements” of the faculty. (The story of Harvard’s sacrifice of standards is described in some detail by William Havender in the American Spectator, March 1978.) But it is hardly useful to invoke character defects, or to decry the lack of heroism: all of the several dozen faculty members in certain official positions reacted in this way to a highly distorted image in the media (though many privately shared my real views), and we must assume that such a large number of individuals are reasonably representative of the academic community. Rather, the lesson is that open and honest discussion of these issues in universities has become virtually outlawed by an atmosphere of extraordinary intimidation, combined with (or rationalized as) compassion and guilt, and compounded by the propensity of the media to maximize polarization.

It is unlikely that universities can solve this problem by themselves. For while minority programs have brought in many students of whom we can be proud, the quotas encouraged by government bureaucracies and courts have also produced many problems, including the creation of a class of beneficiaries who oppose any alteration of this approach. This development is turning an originally moral issue into one of political power, before which academic institutions are particularly helpless. Unless the government comes out clearly against quotas, it will be difficult for many academic institutions to reverse this process and to regain their integrity.

[DR.] Bernard D. Davis
Harvard Medical School
Cambridge, Massachusetts



To the Editor:

In his article, “Living with Quotas,” Joseph Adelson makes the gratuitous statement about Dr. Bernard Davis and the incident involving him at Harvard Medical School:

He [Davis] was thereupon the object of demonstrations, denunciations, and a motion of censure brought against him by the more thuggish elements of the Harvard medical faculty, many of them no doubt life members of the ACLU.

Although I leave to others to judge the use of “thuggish” to describe one’s fellow professionals, as a member of the ACLU and of its Board I am appalled by the bald, unsupported, and unsupportable statement which accompanies it.

Assuming this to be another mindless attack on the ACLU, a former colleague of mine wrote to Mr. Adelson requesting the facts. Mr. Adelson’s . . . response is as follows:

I am afraid that the phrase was not so much hyperbole as a somewhat heavy-handed effort at the sardonic. That it was meant to be sardonic was I thought evident from context, and from the use of the qualifying term “no doubt.” The allusion to ACLU was meant to point to the curious juxtaposition of repressive behavior and liberal posturing. As it happens, I do know the man who organized the assault on Dr. Davis . . . and I’m willing to bet a nickel that he is a staunch member of ACLU.

Mr. Adelson’s readiness to risk an inflationary nickel on this bet speaks eloquently for his knowledge of ACLU and its membership. But even if the unnamed [faculty member] were a “staunch”—rather than a life—member, it is surely absurd to believe this justifies characterizing ACLU action, generally or particularly, as a combination of repressive behavior and liberal posturing. Or is this phrase another example of Mr. Adelson’s antic humor?

Samuel Hendel
Department of Political Science
Trinity College
Hartford, Connecticut



To the Editor:

Although Joseph Adelson’s “Living with Quotas” may have much to commend it, Mr. Adelson perpetuates the myth that student quotas and student affirmative action are “bureaucratically mandated.” But no law, no regulation, no executive order requires any educational institution to develop quotas, goals, affirmative-action programs, or to give preference in admissions. What institutions such as the University of California at Davis in the celebrated Bakke case have done has been purely voluntary. The only mandated affirmative action (under Executive Order 11246) covers employment, not students, and is further limited to institutions voluntarily accepting federal contracts. Furthermore, had the actions of the University of California occurred in employment rather than admission, the university would clearly have violated not only the executive order requiring affirmative action, but also Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bernice Sandler
Project on the Status and Education of Women
Washington, D.C.



Joseph Adelson writes:

I thought long and hard about the word “thuggish,” recognizing that it would seem needlessly provocative. But since one of the central themes of my article was that academicians now suffer from a fear of speaking plainly, I saw no reason to use an evasive adjective when, in my view, Dr. Davis received brutal treatment from some of his colleagues. This is not the place to rehearse the details, so I will be brief. Dr. Davis wrote the most circumspect editorial imaginable on a troubling situation at the Harvard Medical School. Despite his sobriety and caution, he was picketed, threatened with censure, denounced as a racist and fascist. Some of the Harvard administrative hierarchy joined in the abuse, including his dean and the president’s office. It was clear enough that rule-or-ruin tactics were being applied: we will do whatever we please; we will admit as we please and grade as we please and graduate as we please; and if you dare oppose us, however gently, we will destroy your reputation. A message was being sent, not only to Dr. Davis, but to the rest of us as well. That is why the incident is important, so much so that at least three national journals of opinion have now published articles discussing it.

I much admire Dr. Davis’s generosity of spirit in seeking to exculpate his colleagues by framing the issue in larger terms; he is far more charitable to them than they were to him. But I think his analysis is only partially correct. Character is important. Even more important are the standards of civility governing conduct on difficult issues, standards which are to some considerable degree set and sustained by a university’s leadership. Harvard does not now have that quality of leadership, to judge by its deplorable behavior in the Davis case; and the absence encourages a climate in which anything goes. For another example, consider the harassment Dr. Edward O. Wilson, the distinguished biologist, has received—and indeed at the hands of some of the same people who persecuted Dr. Davis. What happened to Dr. Davis at Harvard would not, I think, have happened to him at most other major universities; I really cannot imagine my administration at Michigan treating any of its faculty as shabbily as he was treated.

The erosion of civility is illustrated perfectly in Samuel Hendel’s astonishing communication, astonishing because he proposes to instruct me on professional conduct in the course of writing a letter in which he reprints—without my knowledge or permission—my private correspondence. Nothing reveals more compactly and completely the degradation of ACLU in the last decade than that one of its Board Members—supposedly a civil libertarian—so calmly, so sanctimoniously violates my right to privacy. And it is not an isolated incident. My good friend Professor David Gutmann of Northwestern University, who has been actively involved in the Skokie case, found that a private letter of his, sent to an ACLU member, was—again without his knowledge or permission—sent to an ACLU attorney, who made it public in the course of the Skokie litigation. What we see here is that total contempt for the rights of others characteristic of a certain type of liberal; that type, I am sorry to say, captured the ACLU in the late 1960′s, and drove out some long-time members like myself. I imagine Mr. Hendel is too far gone in self-righteousness to apologize to me; but I would like to know whether the ACLU National Board approves of his behavior, and whether it is now ACLU policy to make public, when it wishes, private correspondence not addressed to it but coming into its possession from others.

I cannot tell whether Bernice Sandler is being ingenuous or disingenuous. Does she really believe that academic quota systems have been entered into voluntarily? The history of affirmative action has been a history of coercion—direct and indirect, actual and implicit, physical and psychological and legal. At my university we “voluntarily” adopted student quotas after roving goon squads, armed with lead pipes and other weapons, damaged some university property and threatened to do far worse. Strong-arm extortion has since given way to softer, more bureaucratic modes. Our university recently entered into a wretched agreement with HEW since it felt it had to, in order to bid on a contract; people’s jobs and careers were at stake. One yields to Secretary Califano’s promptings in much the same spirit of joy one would yield to service in the Cuban labor brigades: both actions are “voluntary.” It is bad enough being forced to cope with the heavy-handed bullying of the federal bureaucracy, but it is a bit much to be told by its functionaries that we are doing so because we want to.

Shortly after I completed this reply, the Court announced its decision on Bakke, which would seem to call for race being permissible only as one element among many in university admissions. If that criterion were to be followed, it would be an acceptable—though far from desirable—solution to a vexing problem. But the first reactions of university authorities are in my view quite disturbing; it seems clear that they intend to go on doing what they have been doing—using race or ethnicity as the essential criterion, though pretending otherwise. Thus, the widely remarked ambiguity of the decision is an incentive to duplicity. I had really hoped that the decision would make my article obsolete, a historical curiosity. Now it appears that the atmosphere of evasion and hypocrisy at the university is likely to continue.

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