Commentary Magazine

HEW & the Universities

Old Howard Smith, Virginia swamp fox of the House Rules Committee, was a clever tactical fighter. When Dixiecrats in 1964 unsuccessfully tried to obstruct passage of the Civil Rights bill, Smith in a fit of inspired raillery devised a perverse stratagem. He proposed an amendment to the bill, to include women as an object of federal protection in employment, by adding sex to the other criteria of race, color, national origin, and religion as illegitimate grounds for discrimination in hiring. This tactical maneuver had far-reaching effects; calculated to rouse at least some Northern masculine ire against the whole bill, it backfired by eliciting a chivalrous rather than (as we now call it) sexist response: the amendment actually passed!

Smith, however, had greater things in mind for women’s rights. As a fall-back strategy, they would distract federal bureaucrats from the principal object of the bill, namely, to rectify employment inequities for Negroes. In this, at least in higher education, Smith’s stratagem is paying off according to expectations. The middle-range bureaucrats staffing the HEW Civil Rights office, under its Director, J. Stanley Pottinger, now scent sexism more easily than racism in the crusade to purify university hiring practices. Minority-group spokesmen grumble when this powerful feminine competitor appears, to horn in. In the dynamics of competition between race and sex for scarce places on university faculties, a new hidden crisis of higher education is brewing. As universities climb out of the rubble of campus disorders of the 1960’s, beset by harsh budgetary reverses, they now are required to redress national social injustices within their walls at their own expense. Compliance with demands from the federal government to do this would compel a stark remodeling of their criteria of recruitment, their ethos of professionalism, and their standards of excellence. Refusal to comply satisfactorily would risk their destruction.

The story of how this came about, and what it portends, is a complex one, so complex that it is hard to know where to begin. It is also an unpleasant tale. Only its first chapters can be written.




Let us begin the story, then, with a brief history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act, in the view of its principal sponsors, purposed (among other things) to engage the force of the federal government in battle to diminish or to rectify discriminatory hiring practices in firms and institutions having or seeking contracts with the federal government. Title VII of the act expressly forbids discrimination by employers on grounds of race, color, religion, and national origin, either in the form of preferential hiring or advancement, or in the form of differential compensation. Contracting institutions deemed negligent in complying with these provisions could be deemed ineligible for such contracts, or their contracts could be suspended, terminated, or not renewed.

When Title VII was debated in the Senate, some opponents of it, asserting (in the words of a Washington Star editorial) that it was a “draftsman’s nightmare,” voiced alarm that it might be used for discriminatory purposes, and employers might be coerced into hiring practices which might, in fact, violate the equal-protection doctrine of the Constitution, thus perversely reversing the stated purposes of the bill. In one significant interchange, this alarm, raised by Florida’s Senator Smathers, was genially dismissed by Senator Humphrey, in words which bear recalling:

Mr. Humphrey: [T] he Senator from Florida is so convincing that when he speaks, as he does, with the ring of sincerity in his voice and heart, and says that an employee should be hired on the basis of his ability—

Mr. Smathers: Correct.

Mr. Humphrey: And that an employer should not be denied the right to hire on the basis of ability and should not take into consideration race—how right the Senator is. . . .

But the trouble is that these idealistic pleadings are not followed by some sinful mortals. There are some who do not hire solely on the basis of ability. Doors are closed; positions are closed; unions are closed to people of color. That situation does not help America. . . .

I know that the Senator from Florida desires to help America, industry and enterprise. We ought to adopt the Smathers doctrine, which is contained in Title VII. I never realized that I would hear such an appropriate description of the philosophy behind Title VII as I have heard today.

Mr. Smathers: Mr. President, the Senator from Minnesota has expressed my doctrine completely. . . .

The first steps in implementing the new act were based on executive orders of the President corresponding to Humphrey’s Smathers Doctrine. President Johnson’s Executive Order No. 11375 (1967) stated that

The contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The contractor will take affirmative action [italics added] to ensure that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Under such plausible auspices, “affirmative action” was born, and with a huge federal endowment to guarantee its success in life. Since 1967, however, this child prodigy—like Charles Addams’s famous nursery boy with the test tubes—has been experimenting with novel brews, so as to change both his appearance and his behavior. And it is curious to see how the singleminded pursuers of an ideal of equity can overrun and trample the ideal itself, while injuring innocent bystanders as well.




Affirmative action was altered by a Labor Department order (based not on the Civil Rights Act but on revised Presidential directives) only months after the Johnson order was announced. This order reshaped it into a weapon for discriminatory hiring practices. If the reader will bear with a further recitation of federal prose, let me introduce Order No. 4, Department of Labor:

An affirmative-action program is a set of specific and result-oriented procedures to which a contractor commits himself to apply every good faith effort. The objective of these procedures plus such efforts is equal employment opportunity. Procedures without effort to make them work are meaningless; and effort, undirected by specific and meaningful procedures, is inadequate. An acceptable affirmative-action program must include an analysis of areas within which the contractor is deficient in the utilization of minority groups and women, and further, goals and timetables to which the contractor’s good faith efforts must be directed to correct the deficiencies and thus, to increase materially the utilization of minorities and women, at all levels and in all segments of his work force where deficiencies exist.

This directive is now applicable through HEW enforcement procedures to universities by delegation of authority from the Labor Department. By late 1971, something of a brushfire, fanned by hard-working HEW compliance officers, had spread through American higher education, the cause of it being the demand that universities, as a condition of obtaining or retaining their federal contracts, establish hiring goals based upon race and sex.




Universities, for a variety of singular reasons, are extremely vulnerable to this novel attack. As President McGill of Columbia remarked recently, “We are no longer in all respects an independent private university.” As early as 1967, the federal government was annually disbursing contract funds to universities at the rate of three-and-a-half billion dollars a year; recently the Carnegie Commission suggested that federal contract funding be increased by 1978 to thirteen billion dollars, if universities are to meet their educational objectives. Individual institutions, notably great and distinguished ones, already are extraordinarily dependent on continuing receipt of federal support. The University of California, for instance, currently (1970-71) depends upon federal contract funds for approximately $72 million. The University of Michigan, periodically harassed by HEW threats of contract suspension, cancellation, or non-renewal, would stand to lose as much as $60 million per annum. The threat of permanent disqualification, if consummated, could wholly wreck a university’s prospects for the future.

In November 1971, HEW’s Office for Civil Rights announced its intent to institute proceedings for Columbia’s permanent debarment—even though no charges or findings of discrimination had been made: Columbia had simply not come up with an acceptable affirmative-action program to redress inequities which had not even been found to exist. When minor officials act like Alice in Wonderland’s Red Queen, using threats of decapitation for frivolous purposes; when they act as investigator, prosecutor, and judge rolled into one, there may be no cause for surprise. But one can certainly wonder how even they would dare pronounce sentence—and a sentence of death at that—even before completion of the investigatory phase. Such, however, appears to be the deadly logic of HEW procedures. As J. Stanley Pottinger, chief of HEW’s office, said at a West Coast press conference recently, “We have a whale of a lot of power and we’re prepared to use it if necessary.” In known circumstances of its recent use, the threat resembles the deployment of MIRV missiles to apprehend a suspected embezzler.




As the federal government of the United States moves uncertainly to establish equitable racial patterns in universities and colleges, it does so with few guidelines from historical experience. The management, manipulation, and evaluation of quotas, targets, and goals for preferential hiring are certainly matters as complex as are the unusual politics which such announced policies inspire. How equitably to assuage the many group claimants for preference, context-by-context, occasion-by-occasion, and year-by-year, as these press and jostle among themselves for prior attention in preference, must by now occasion some puzzlement even among HEW bureaucrats. On a recent Inspector General’s tour of California, J. Stanley Pottinger found himself giving comfort to militant women at Boalt Hall Law School of the University of California; yet at Hay-ward State College, he was attacked by Chicanos for giving preference to blacks! Leaders of militant groups, needless to say, are less interested in the acute dilemmas posed to administrators by this adventure than in what they actually want for themselves. (When at Michigan I raised with a Women’s Commission lady the question of whether an actual conflict-of-interest might exist between blacks and women, she simply dismissed the matter: that’s for an administrator to figure out.) How to arrive at some distant utopian day, when “underutilization” of minorities or women has “disappeared,” is as difficult to imagine as the nature of the ratios that will apply on that day.1




Fifteen years ago, David Riesman in his Constraint and Variety in American Education pointed to certain qualities which distinctively characterized avant-garde institutions of higher learning in this country. The world of scholarship, he said, “is democratic rather than aristocratic in tone, and scholars are made, not born.” A “certain universalizing quality in academic life” resulted from the existence of disciplines which “can lift us out of our attachments to home and mother, to our undergraduate alma mater, too, and attach us instead to the new country of Biophysics or the old of Medieval History.” In America, the relative decline of ethnic and social-class snobberies and discrimination, combined with immense expansion of the colleges, drew into scholarship a great majority whose backgrounds were distinctly unscholarly. “The advancing inner frontier of science,” he wrote, had for many taken the place which the Western frontier served for earlier pioneers. The loyalty which the new democratic scholar showed to his discipline signalled a kind of “non-territorial nationalism.” In contrast to his European counterparts, the American scholar found few colleagues among the mass of undergraduates on the basis either of “a common culture or a common ideology in the political or eschatological sense.” Paradoxically this democratization of the university (with its stress not on status but upon excellence in performance) had not begun in rank-and-file small colleges of the nation, which were exemplars of America’s ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. Rather it had come out of those innovating institutions which, in quest of excellence, either abandoned or transcended much of their discriminatory sociological parochialism. It was the denominational college, where deliberate discrimination according to sex, religion, color, and culture continued to be practiced in admissions and faculty recruitment, which made up the rear of the snake-like academic procession. The egalitarianism of excellence, a democracy of performance, was an ethos consummated by the avant-garde. Riesman labelled the disciplines of the great universities the “racecourses of the mind.”

Felix Frankfurter, who went from CCNY to Harvard Law School, was equally impressed with how the system worked. “What mattered,” he wrote, “was excellence in your profession to which your father or your face was equally irrelevant. And so rich man, poor man were just irrelevant titles to the equation of human relations. The thing that mattered was what you did professionally. . . .” As he saw the merit system, the alternative to it had to be “personal likes and dislikes, or class, or color, or religious partialities or antipathies. . . . These incommensurable things give too much room for personal preferences and on the whole make room for unworthy and irrelevant biases.”

The greatest boost to America’s universities came in the 1930’s from European emigré scholars whose powerful influence (notably in the sciences and social sciences) is still felt even today. As exemplars of learning, their impact upon young and parochial American students was profound.2 Thanks in part to them, by the 1950’s the great American universities attained an authentic cosmopolitanism of scholarship matched by no other university system in the world. And the outward reach of American higher education toward the best the world of scholarship could offer generated an inward magnetism, attracting to itself the most qualified students who could be found to study with these newly renowned faculties.

This system of recruitment also left a myriad of American sociological categories statistically un-derrepresented in the highest precincts of American higher education. Today, with respect to race and ethnicity, blacks, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and all other Slavic groups (including Slovaks, Slovenes, Serbs, Czechs, and Croatians) are under-represented. On faculties, at least, women are un-derrepresented. Important religious categories are underrepresented. The great Catholic universities, until recently, have stood aside from the mainstream of secular higher education; they have been enclaves of a separated scholarship. Thus few Catholics are to be found in the roster of distinguished faculties of America’s great secular universities, even though Catholics comprise perhaps 30 per cent of the population. And it is interesting to note that the quest for professional excellence in some respects has militated against the achievement of group parities: among those women’s colleges which had obtained by the 1950’s an enviable academic status as being more than apartheid seminaries, one apparent “price” of scholarly excellence was the rapid infusion of male faculty.

And then, on the other hand, there are the Jews. For a long time, administrators of some of America’s universities, aware of the powerful scholarly competition which Jewish students and scholars posed, and the social “inequities” which their admission or recruitment might pose, established protective quotas—the famous numerus clausus—to keep their numbers down. Yale Law School, for example, abandoned its Jewish quota for incoming students only in the 1950’s. With the triumph of equal opportunity over quotas, the bastions of discrimination collapsed. It is estimated that Jews make up about 3 per cent of the population. Clearly they constitute a vastly greater proportion than that on the faculties of America’s greatest universities, especially in the social sciences, mathematics, and the humanities.

One could enlarge this catalogue of statistical disparities indefinitely. Yet I must also mention the political, although it is seldom touched upon. The partisan complexion of universities is a matter which HEW does not, and cannot, attend to. Still, I would point out that the faculty of my department at Berkeley, for example, very large by any standards, had to the best of my knowledge three Republicans on it a few years ago; two have since left, one by retirement and one by resignation. There is one new convert, who switched registration to vote for Senator Kuchel in the GOP primary and against Max Rafferty and found, after conversion, that he enjoyed the notoriety which his deviance produced. So, currently we have two Republicans in a department of thirty-eight. This situation is in no way unique. Yet I doubt that even Nixon’s HEW crusaders for equality of results would tread into this minefield of blatant inequity. On the other hand, one wonders whether, in White House garrets, there are not some among the President’s Republican equerry who take perverse pleasure in watching academic liberals, crusaders for social justice for others, now hoist by their own petard on home territory.




The ironic potentials in affirmative action might have been foreseen had American lawmakers and administrators known the results which in recent years have plagued the government of India’s pursuit of a quite similar goal. Here, perhaps more clearly than in any other contemporary culture, the idea that social justice can be reached via quotas and preferences has led almost inexorably to extremes of absurdity.

Before independence, under British rule, special privileges to communities and castes were given or withheld under the British raj both to rectify inequities and (as in the instance of the Muslims) to punish disloyalty or reward support. Commencing in legislatures as the establishment of reserved seats for privileged groups—first for Muslims, then for Anglo-Indians, then for Indian Christians—the principle of privileged representation soon spread into other sectors of public life.

When in the early 1930’s B. R. Ambedkar, leader of the Untouchables, demanded that the British establish preferential electoral quotas for them, Gandhi objected, arguing that the interests of the Untouchables would better be advanced by integrating them into society than by protecting them with preferential treatment. Gandhi believed that preference would heighten identity of caste rather than diminish it, and that it further risked creating vested-interest minorities. Yet in negotiations with the British, Ambedkar won and Gandhi lost. After independence, the government of India backtracked, abolishing preferential treatment for all groups except tribal peoples and scheduled castes (i.e., Untouchables) who were accorded certain preferences in government recruitment and in access to educational institutions, fellowships, and admissions. Such preferences, originally instituted as temporary devices, soon became institutionalized, and again they spread. So-called “backward classes” proliferated to the point where it became necessary to be designated as “backward” in order to become privileged. And, indeed, in 1964, a “Backwardness Commission” recommended in the state of Mysore that every group except two (the Brahmins and the Lingayats) be officially designated as backward!

The Indian experience clearly shows that when access to privilege is defined on ethnic-community lines, the basic issue of individual rights is evaded; new privileges arise; caste privilege sabotages the principle of equality; the polity further fragments; and the test of performance is replaced by the test of previous status. (In Kanpur, recently, the son of a wealthy Jat family applied for admission to the Indian Institute of Technology and was rejected on objective criteria; then he reapplied as a member of an ethnically-scheduled caste, and on this basis was admitted.)




To remain eligible for federal contracts under the new procedures, universities must devise package proposals, containing stated targets for preferential hiring on grounds of race and sex. HEW may reject these goals, giving the university thirty-day notice for swift rectification, even though no charges of discrimination have been brought. Innocence must either be quickly proved, or acceptable means of rectification devised. But how does one prove innocence?

“Hiring practices” (i.e., faculty recruitment procedures) are decentralized; they devolve chiefly upon departments. At Columbia, for instance, 77 units generate proposals for recruitment. Faculties resent (most of the time quite properly) attempts of administrators to tell them whom to hire, and whom not. Departments rarely keep records of the communications and transactions which precede the making of an employment offer, except as these records pertain to the individual finally selected. Still, the procedure is time-consuming and expensive. The Department of Economics of the San Diego campus of the University of California estimates that it costs twenty to forty man hours, plus three to five hundred dollars, to screen one candidate sufficiently to make an offer. Typically, dozens of candidates are reviewed in earlier stages.

Compliance data thus tend to be scanty and incomplete. “Columbia’s problem,” President McGill recently observed, “is that it is difficult to prove what we do because it is exceedingly difficult to develop the data base on which to show, in the depth and detail demanded [by HEW], what the University’s personnel activities in fact are.” Yet HEW demands such data from universities on thirty-day deadlines, with contract suspension threatened. Moreover, on its finding of discrimination (usually based on statistical, not qualitative, evidence), it may demand plans for rectification which oblige the university to commit itself to abstract preferential goals without regard to the issue of individual merit.

The best universities, which also happen to be those upon which HEW has chiefly worked its knout, habitually and commonsensically recruit from other best institutions. The top universities hire the top 5 per cent of graduate students in the top ten universities. This is the “skill pool” they rely upon. Some may now deem such practices archaic but they have definitely served to maintain quality. Just as definitely they have not served to obtain “equality of results” in terms of the proportional representation of sociological categories. Such equality assumes that faculties somehow must “represent” designated categories of people on grounds other than those of professional qualification. As Labor Department Order No. 4 states, special attention “should be given to academic, experience and skill requirements, to ensure that the requirements in themselves do not constitute inadvertent discrimination.” Indeed, according to four professors at Cornell writing in the Times (Letters to the Editor, January 6), deans and department chairmen have been informed by that university’s president that HEW policy means the “‘hiring of additional minority persons and females’ even if ‘in many instances, it may be necessary to hire unqualified or marginally qualified people.’”

If departments abandon the practice of looking to the best pools from which they can hope to draw, then quality must in fact be jeopardized. To comply with HEW orders, every department must come up not with the best candidate, but with the best-qualified woman or non-white candidate. For when a male or a white candidate is actually selected or recommended, it is now incumbent on both department and university to prove that no qualified woman or non-white was found available. Some universities already have gone so far in emulating the federal bureaucracy as to have installed their own bureaucratic monitors, in the form of affirmative-action coordinators, to screen recommendations for faculty appointments before final action is taken.

A striking contradiction exists between HEW’s insistence that faculties prove they do not discriminate and its demand for goals and timetables which require discrimination to occur. For there is no reason to suppose that equitable processes in individual cases will automatically produce results which are set in the timetables and statistical goals universities are now required to develop. If all that HEW wishes is evidence that universities are bending over backward to be fair, why should it require them to have statistical goals at all? Do they know something no one else knows, about where fairness inevitably leads?

Yet another facet of HEW’s procedures goes to the very heart of faculty due process: its demand of the right of access to faculty files, when searching for evidence of discrimination. Such files have always been the most sacrosanct documents of academia, and for good reason: it has been assumed that candor in the evaluation of candidates and personnel is best guaranteed by confidentiality of comment; and that evasiveness, caution, smoke-screening, and grandstanding—which would be the principal consequences of open files—would debase standards of judgment. In the past, universities have denied federal authorities—the FBI for instance—access to these files. Now HEW demands access. And it is the recent reluctance of the Berkeley campus of the University of California to render unto this agent of Caesar what was denied to previous agents, which occasioned the HEW ultimatum of possible contract suspension: $72 million. One might imagine the faculty would be in an uproar, what with Nixon’s men ransacking the inner temple. But no. In this as in other aspects of this curious story, the faculty is silent.




“In respect of civil rights, common to all citizens, the Constitution of the United States does not, I think, permit any public authority to know the race of those entitled to be protected in the enjoyment of such rights. . . . Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” This is Justice Harlan, dissenting in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, when the Supreme Court endorsed the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Some of us in the league of lost liberals are still wont to say that the Constitution is color-blind. Yet now under the watchful eye of federal functionaries, academic administrators are compelled to be as acutely sensitive as Kodachrome to the outward physical appearance of their faculty members and of proposed candidates for employment. Forms supplying such information are now fed into data-processing machines; print-outs supply ethnic profiles of departments, colleges, and schools, from which compliance reports may be sent to HEW, and university affirmative-action goals are approved or rejected.3

All of this is done in some uneasiness of mind, to put it mildly. In many states, Harlan-like blue-laws of a recent innocent epoch still expressly prohibit employers from collecting and maintaining data on prospective employees with respect to race, religion, and national origin. The crafty practices contrived to elude the intention of such laws while at the same time complying with HEW, vary from campus to campus. At the University of Michigan, the procedure entails what is known as “self-designation”—the employee indicates on a form the race or ethnic group of which he considers himself a part.4 These forms are collected and grouped according to job-classifications, departments, etc., and then they are burned, so as to disappear without a trace. Other universities, less anxious to cover their traces, simply file the forms separately from regular personnel files, without the names of the individuals concerned. In New York, the CUNY system resorts to a quite different practice invented and perfected by South African Boers: “visual identification.” Affirmative-action coordinators are told to proceed as follows: “The affirmative-action inventory is to be done by a visual survey [italics in original]. There should not be a notation of any kind as to ethnic background in either personnel records or permanent files. This is against the law. . . . Identification of Italian Americans will be done visually and by name. . . . Please remember, however, that each individual is to be listed in only one ethnic group.”

The number of categories established on behalf of affirmative action, though at present finite, already betrays accordion-like expansibility. The affirmative-action program at San Francisco State College, typical of most, is now confined to six racial groups: Negroes; Orientals; other Non-White; persons of Mexican, Central or South American ancestry (“except those who have physical characteristics of Negro, Oriental, or other Non-White races”); Native American (American Indian); and All Others, “. . . including those commonly designated as Caucasian or White.” All but the last category are eligible for discriminatory preference.5

As the above CUNY memorandum signals, however, this last category of “those commonly designated as Caucasian or White” is a Pandora’s box inside a Pandora’s box. Now that the Italians have escaped from it in New York, the lid is open for others—all the many different groups now fashionably known as “ethnics”—to do likewise. A far-seeing administrator, even as under HEW’s gun he hastily devises future-oriented hiring quotas (“goals”) to muffle the noise of one or two squeaky wheels, might wonder how he will be able to gratify subsequent claimants on the dwindling capital of reserved quotas still at his disposal.

Yet the administrator in practice has no choice but to act on the “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” principle. HEW ultimata, when they come, are imperious and immediate. Thirty-day rectifications are in order. At Johns Hopkins, MIT, Columbia, Michigan, and the University of California, an acute agony arises from no such philosophical long-range speculations, but from how to put together attractive compliance reports fast enough to avoid the threatened withholding of vast funds, the closing-down of whole facilities, the dismissal of thousands of staff workers, and the irreparable damage done to important ongoing research, especially to laboratory experiments. Crocodile tears do flow, from the gimlet-eyes of HEW investigators, who observe these sufferings from distant federal offices. Even J. Stanley Pottinger recently noted, in appropriate Pentagonese, that the act of contract suspension at Berkeley, for instance, might constitute “overkill.” Yet no sooner had he voiced this note of sadness than his regional compliance director recommended to Washington precisely such action.




While deans, chancellors, and personnel officials struggle with these momentous matters, faculties and gradute students with few exceptions are silent. HEW is acting in the name of social justice. Who in the prevailing campus atmosphere would openly challenge anything done in that name? Tenured faculty perhaps consult their private interests and conclude that whatever damage the storm may do to less-protected colleagues or to their job-seeking students, prudence suggests a posture of silence. Others perhaps, refusing to admit that contending interests are involved, believe that affirmative action is cost free, and that all will benefit from it in the Keynesian long run. But someone will pay: namely very large numbers of white males who are among those distinguishable as “best qualified” and who will be shunted aside in the frantic quest for “disadvantaged qualifiables.”

The inequities implied in affirmative action, and the concealed but real costs to individuals, would probably have had less damaging effects upon such highly-skilled graduate students had they been imposed in the early 1960’s. Then, the sky was the limit on the growth and the affluence of higher education. If a pie gets bigger, so may its slices enlarge; nobody seems to lose. Such is today not the case. The pie now shrinks. One West Coast state college, for example, last year alone lost nearly 70 budgeted faculty positions due to financial stringency. Yet this same college has just announced the boldest affirmative-action program in California higher education. “Decided educational advantages can accrue to the college,” it said, “by having its faculty as well as its student body be more representative of the minority population of the area. It is therefore expected that a substantial majority of all new faculty appointments during the immediate academic years will be from minorities, including women, until the underutilization no longer exists.” (Italics added.) Departments which refuse to play the game will have their budgets reviewed by university officials.

It is hard to say how widely such pernicious practices have been institutionalized in other colleges and universities. But were they to be generalized across the nation, one thing is certain: either large numbers of highly-qualified scholars will pay with their careers simply because they are male and white, or, affirmative action will have failed in its benevolent purposes.




It seems superfluous to end this chronicle of woe with mention of another heavy cost—one not so immediately visible—in the forceful administration of affirmative-action hiring goals. This is that men will be less able to know, much less sustain, the professional standards by which they and others judge and are judged. An enthusiastic affirmative-action administrator recently in argument with a skeptical college president said, “Let’s face it-you and I know there are a lot of lousy programs and a lot of shoddiness around here. Why object to this?” By such logic, one bad turn deserves another. Since more and more less and less qualified students may enter universities, why bother too much about the quality of the new faculty hired to teach them? It is an interesting reflex habit of some federal bureaucrats and politicians (when confronted with objections that affirmative action might, for instance, discriminate against well- or better-qualified persons) to draw rhetorical analogies to confute their critics on this score. Told that affirmative action might actually discriminate against white males, J. Stanley Pottinger of HEW simply replied, “That is balderdash. That is the biggest crock I have ever heard. It is the kind of argument one expects to hear from a backwoods cracker fanner.”

Indeed, backwoods cracker farmers are making this argument—though for reasons other than those Pottinger had in mind, and which have much to do with the things great universities require in order to survive in their greatness. Consider what a white third-year law student at a Southern university (self-designating himself disadvantaged but according to no currently approved norms) had to say with respect to his personal situation:

The ability to think in the abstract is hard for a person with my cultural background and economic background. My parents were WASPS whose income barely exceeded the poverty level. My father is a Southern Baptist with a third-grade education. . . . My mother is a Southern Baptist also. . . . She can read and write but my father is illiterate.

In the public schools I attended, memorization was always emphasized. At—University . . . during my first eight quarters at this law school no one has emphasized the ability to think in abstract terms. . . . I do not know if this type of education is good or bad, but I do know that all your time is spent taking notes and that there is no time for thought. . . . Regardless, the course has made me acutely aware of how fortunate I am to be an American. In no other country would I have been able to complete the requirements for a J.D. degree. My cultural and economic background would have prevented it. . . . My background also prevents me from answering a test like this in the manner you desire. But if I must answer, then I will. . . .

There is another form of discrimination of which, I believe, I am a victim. As a non-member of a minority group I feel that I . . . [am] discriminated against constantly. The same admissions standards are not applied because a certain percentage of minority students must be admitted in each class regardless of their qualifications. My test score, undergraduate record, and my family (poor white) deny me admittance to Harvard because I am white. I do not say this in bitterness, but in observation of the current status of admission practices as I perceive them. . . .

Somebody, then, has to pay, when the principle of merit is compromised or replaced by preferential ethnic and sex criteria.

Who then wins? The beneficiaries of preference? The particular institution involved? Society as a whole? One may debate the answer to each of those questions, but one thing is certain: HEW wins. It wins, as Aaron Wildavsky has pointed out, because winning can be defined by internal norms. The box-score is of its own devising. To the extent that its goals are met, and the body-count proves this, it wins. But then, where have we heard that before?




1 When I asked an administrator at San Francisco State College what “underutilization” of minorities meant, he simply replied, “Experience will let us know.”

2 It is now sometimes said, on behalf of preferential recruitment of less-qualified minority faculty, that minority students require examples whom “their community” can respect. Whether in practice this would, as claimed, stimulate their performance, is hard to say. The most stimulating exemplary professors I encountered as a student had quite different “socio-economic” backgrounds from mine. Many were even foreigners. It seems almost foolish to have to mention this.

3 Since HEW has divulged no reliable standards of its own, the well-intentioned administrator is like a worshiper of Baal, propitiating a god who may punish or reward, but who is silent.

4 Self-designation is not always reliable. At Michigan, the amused or disgusted members of one of the university's maintenance crews all self-designated themselves as American Indians (bureaucratese: Native American); their supervisor was quietly asked to redesignate them accurately.

5 One object of current discriminatory hiring practices at San Francisco State is to make the institution's non-academic personnel ethnically mirror the population of the Bay Area.

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