Affirmative Action in Higher Education: A Dilemma of Conflicting Principles

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Part 1
When I became president of San Jose State University in 1970, affirmative action was regarded by its strongest advocates as a democratic principle wrapped in a moral command. In addition to its active involvement in student admissions, the federal government was also authorized to take enforcement action against colleges and universities (if they were federal contractors) that had not taken positive steps to establish specific recruitment goals and timetables to assure an immediate increase in the hiring of more minority and women faculty members and staff employees. The (then) Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) was responsible for accepting or rejecting programs proposed by individual campuses.

The critical question for faculty and administrators was how these affirmative action programs were to be carried out.1

Like many others of my generation I had been an early supporter of the civil rights movement that began in the 1940s after the Second World War and that culminated in the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a young professor of political science in the late '50s and early '60s, I was also aware that women in particular had not been accorded fair and equal treatment by the academic world and that it was time to admit it. But in the early years of affirmative action, when it was being shaped and directed by officials in Washington, I strongly believed we should recruit more women and minority faculty members on an equal opportunity and nondiscriminatory basis, drawing on the tradition that the equal protection clause of the Constitution calls for the elimination of racial barriers (the constitutional removal of gender barriers would come later) and does not allow discriminatory preferences for any group, minority and majority. I was opposed, however, to the use of any form of quota system (or its functional equivalent) that would move the campus to the concept of race or sex as an exclusive or predominant criterion for faculty hiring.2

I soon discovered that the distinction was important because the debate over affirmative action was already being cast in a familiar idiom: If you are not actively with us, you are actively against us. However, I could not accept the simplistic choice of "friend" vs. "enemy," especially when applied to a college or university. The issue for me was not simply "doing the right thing" but of competing and legitimate values and their relationship to many practical problems. It was my contention that affirmative action involved (and still involves) a collision of rights and principles. Thus I argued in different public forums that as a society we needed to remove the many injustices (educational, economic, cultural, political, and social) to the disadvantaged and minorities but that colleges and universities must not adopt unjust or undemocratic means to achieve laudable goals. Case in point: It was true that blacks, Hispanics, and other groups were not heavily represented on San Jose State's faculty. But I believed that as a university we should not make faculty appointments the way a political party chooses convention delegates. The proper goal is to hire the best-qualified person on the basis of accomplishment and capacity in teaching and research.

At a meeting with a delegation of minority students in the fall of 1971, I was asked directly if I was truly committed to increasing the number of minorities on the faculty (which, they made clear, they did not believe). My answer was yes--but I emphasized that the university must remain equally committed to maintaining high professional standards in its faculty hiring. It was entirely possible, I said, that present standards and qualifications might inadvertently keep the number of minority faculty appointments disproportionately low and that the outcome of that unhappy situation might be to discredit the professional standards. The discussion was sharp edged and often heated. One student echoed the sentiments of others by suggesting that perhaps we should maintain the "white standards"--but then openly depart from them in the name of social justice by adopting a system of hiring minority applicants who might not be fully or formally qualified but who could in time become qualifiable (another familiar term at the time).

I replied that the university could never adopt a double standard of evaluation. That would be demeaning and condescending. Besides, as I tried to point out, after such a process had been operating for a while, we would still have to ask if it had been successful. The horns of that dilemma, however, were sharp indeed. Who would feel able to state publicly that the "underqualified faculty" had performed poorly? What would happen if a minority person who had been given a faculty appointment leading to tenure proved inadequate, but his ethnic group on campus demanded that he be retained? I was not claiming that underqualified appointees could never become qualified, and I could readily agree that there might be times when mere formal qualification is meaningless. But when apprehension about social justice toward a group prevents our making a clearheaded judgment about an individual, and when one feels compelled to assert in all cases that the minimally qualified did as well as the highly qualified, then what would happen to our established academic standards?

Stanley Pottinger, the first director of the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of HEW, had declared in a public debate he and I participated in at the annual convention of the American Association of University Professors in 1972--and which he later put in writing--that performance standards and qualifications "need not be abandoned or compromised in order to hire unqualified women and minorities." He urged the campuses to engage in "good faith efforts" to identify and recruit on a nondiscriminatory basis qualified women and minorities so that they could become available for equal consideration. He could easily have been reading from a memo that went from my office to all academic deans and heads of departments within six months of my assuming the presidency that called for all full-time academic appointments to be filled through broad searches that included "special efforts" to locate women and minorities, with the clear understanding that the final candidates were to be evaluated by the same standards and that the best-qualified person would be chosen on the basis of his or her skill, ability, achievement, and promise.

There remained, however, a fundamental difference between Pottinger and me that reflected a certain schizophrenia running through the whole posture of affirmative action. What I found especially troubling was that as a matter of policy and practice "treating equally" was being subordinated to "hiring more." Following the lead of Pottinger and his colleagues, the compliance agencies in Washington focused their attention on the need to overcome the "underutilization" of what came to be known as "preferred groups" on college faculties. "Underutilization" was a central concept in the early 1970s ("diversity" was not yet part of the compliance vocabulary) and illustrated the shift in how those of us on the campuses were to understand discrimination and discriminatory practices in higher education and what should be done about it. It quickly became evident that nondiscrimination and equal treatment without regard to race, sex, or national origin were being transformed into the more important goal of the "truly committed" affirmative actionists who insisted on the immediate hiring of more women and minorities.

I had always hoped that the true goal of affirmative action would become an "equality of actual opportunities" for all individuals so that the best possible person could be fairly found for every opening. But it now seemed to me that through a sophistic manipulation of the concept of "discrimination" and "equal opportunity," affirmative action was evolving into an overall group-based preferential policy resembling something close to proportional hiring. But that was not to happen at San Jose State, principally because of my good fortune, first, in inheriting an academic vice president (Hobert Burns) and, second, the chance to appoint a dean of the faculty (Robert Sasseen), both of whom believed that no institution should be required to hire faculty members--whether women, minorities, or anyone else--solely on the basis of sexual or racial preference. In a series of formal and informal meetings with members of the faculty, we sent the message early and often that our affirmative action policy would be aimed at ending the long-standing preferences for white males.

We took special pains to secure the understanding and support of the academic deans, who, in turn, were responsible for explaining to the department heads in their respective schools how affirmative action was to be implemented when filling a new faculty position. An affirmative action officer was appointed, one of whose principal duties was to monitor carefully every search for a new tenure-track faculty member and to make an official report confirming that the department had met its obligation to "reach out" to women and minorities so that they would be included in the pool of candidates to be considered by the search committee and thereby have the opportunity to compete fully and fairly on genuinely equal terms. Without formal verification that these procedures had been followed, the faculty search would not go forward. When approval of the procedures was recorded by the affirmative action officer, the committee was then charged with choosing the best-qualified person available for the faculty position based on his or her competence to teach and do research, to explore ideas, and to transmit knowledge.

Part 2
It would be a mistake to think that our policy was unopposed. Some faculty members, especially in the humanities and social sciences, maintained that specific "goals" and "timetables" were essential to require affirmative and corrective action in the hiring of certain minority groups and women. They also placed more of an emphasis on group rights than on individual rights. An affirmative action officer I had appointed because he was the best-qualified candidate out of more than a hundred applicants for the job (and not on the basis of sex or because he was black) resigned two years later, convinced that the concept of a university trying to choose the best-qualified person is "an act of the greatest self-deception." (These profoundly different perspectives, although relatively new in the early 1970s, would later become central in the years of debate over affirmative action.) Invoking what she called the "compassion of affirmative action," an instructor in remedial English, which was offered for entering freshmen who could not read or write satisfactorily, casually informed me over lunch one day that she simply did not have the heart to flunk all the black students in her section because they had tried so hard throughout the semester to do the class work. Instead of giving them an F--the grade they had actually earned--she gave them a passing grade of D because of their "extraordinary effort." (She was not asked to teach another section the next semester.) When an academic department was given a budgeted position to hire a new assistant professor, its chairman reported to the academic vice president that it would not conduct a search that year because no black candidate was available. He was quickly informed that his department should make the appointment that year or the budgeted position would be withdrawn and given to another department.

On a weekday morning in May 1972, the chancellor's Council of Presidents of the California State University system met for two hours with staff members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to listen to their views about affirmative action and what we as presidents needed to do to be "in compliance" with government regulations. What we soon discovered was that they intended to play a decisive role in making the American system of higher education fit their own egalitarian model.3

John Buggs, the Civil Rights Commission's staff director, opened the meeting by explaining why affirmative action had no real meaning unless it was results oriented. What was now needed in the faculty hiring process was a new set of qualifying criteria. Where an adequate pool of qualified persons was not available among minority people, universities should develop a labor pool of such people to the point where they could be considered. He had reviewed all of the campus affirmative action policies, he told us, but he could not tell from the documents if there were adequate numbers of women and minorities on the faculty and staff. That is why goals and timetables must be established--to overcome any such deficiencies.

Jess Miller spoke enthusiastically about some of the state colleges' plans that involved such features such as minority "set asides," endorsing the practice of not hiring available qualified white males but holding jobs open until women or members of certain minority groups could be found to fill them. (Such plans were ultimately dropped because, as several of us pointed out, they were against the law.) Miller persisted, reminding us that it was necessary to increase minority employment and that the name of the game was results.

Maywanda Michael wanted us to look not only to the number of black Ph.D.'s but to the holders of master's degrees by black people in the particular field. Some traditional criteria are applied so stringently as to result in exclusion, she suggested, which is why one must ask why a Ph.D. is necessary to teach. The objective of affirmative action, she reemphasized, is equalized results, therefore making it necessary to consider equivalency criteria.

We were informed that all the guidelines that our campuses had followed for years with respect to job requisites would be reviewed and that, as in the case of industry, higher education may be called on for a "job redesign." Ms. Michael added that one might have a good teacher even without a Ph.D. Thus the real criterion for qualification should be equivalency. Along with several other presidents, I objected strenuously to the suggestion that higher education could simply be "redesigned" like any other business or industry. We also took strong exception to any suggestion that we should drop the Ph.D. requirement. But we were told that if some courses can be taught without the Ph.D., then people can be hired without that degree to teach them. Their central point was unmistakable: The Ph.D. degree does not bring about sufficient affirmative action results.

Along with a number of the presidents I found the meeting to be as unsatisfactory as it was alarming. I told Mr. Buggs after we had adjourned that he and his colleagues had confirmed the growing suspicion among many of us that many officials in Washington were less interested in working together with universities to change higher education for the better, actively and steadily, than in bringing about a statistically acceptable representation of women and minorities, quickly and across the board, by indiscriminate fiat. As San Jose State, I pointed out, we did not accept the increasing tendency of the government's compliance agencies to regard numbers as ends in themselves and, more specifically, we rejected the argument of government officials who investigate hiring and promotional practices by relying heavily on a "numbers" definition of discrimination. We were committed to promoting equal opportunity for everyone, including in particular those in the past who had been excluded and discriminated against. But we were opposed to the government's effort to bring about "an equality of forced results."

In the fall of 1973 the chancellor asked me if I would serve on a committee he would soon appoint whose task would be to recommend to the trustees of the California state universities and colleges an affirmative action policy for all nineteen campuses. He had read one or two of my published articles, and it is clear, he said, that you have given considerable thought to the issue as it affects higher education. I agreed to serve, although I told him I did not look forward to what I anticipated would be a difficult assignment for any committee he put together. He also appointed another president (from San Diego State), two faculty members (one male, one female), a staff employee (a woman) from one of the campuses, two minority students (one black, one Hispanic), and the chief counsel of the CSU system (who served as chairman).

The committee met on a regular basis for the better part of an academic year, arguing over everything from philosophical ideas and concepts to the precise use of key words and phrases. We took countless votes because we were rarely in full agreement (before we concluded our deliberations, the two students left the committee in protest). But ultimately, through hard-fought exchanges and compromises that did not come easily, we hammered out a set of broad principles and guidelines that the trustees subsequently (with few changes) adopted.

To read the trustees' policy of 1974 is to recognize that in the past quarter century fundamental changes have occurred in the theory and practice of affirmative action that have involved a reordering of certain basic values. One way to gauge the distance we have traveled is to examine the major tenets and language of the 1974 policy, beginning with the preamble affirming that "all persons shall be distinguished on the basis only of merit--their abilities, knowledges, and achievements." It was purposely stated this way to leave no doubt about the trustees' intention to have university positions awarded on the basis of individual competence.

The policy expressly obligated each of the campuses and the Chancellor's Office to "treat all persons in employment without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin." Regarding affirmative action recruitment, the trustees declared that no faculty or staff position would be "limited or reserved to or set aside for persons of any particular sex or minority status, nor shall any such reservation or set-aside be made." It further stipulated equal opportunity "shall be provided to any qualified person to compete for and attain employment and advancement on the basis of ability," which underscored the trustees' commitment to open, fair, and nondiscriminatory competition for all job openings.

On the subject of goals and timetables, the trustees included these carefully considered comments: "The goals shall be numerical only if supported by adequate data as to the availability in the labor market of qualified minorities and women in the discipline or assignment for which the goal is established" and "It must be emphasized that the use of goals and timetables does not imply quotas or preferential treatment. Quotas and preferential hiring are not in accordance with national, state or trustee policy." They also called for "vigorous efforts to find and attract qualified women and minority persons to the service of the campus" so as to "eliminate their underutilization." But they stressed that "the fact of underutilization does not, in itself, indicate existing or past discrimination." The trustees' policy further commanded that "those judged to be the best qualified" should be selected, retained, and advanced "without regard to race, color, religion, sex or national origin." By stressing the concept of merit, the trustees were declaring openly that the highest intellectual and academic standards should not be compromised in, for example, the appointment of faculty members.

By the end of the 1970s, it was increasingly apparent that the advocates of an aggressive affirmative action program were departing from their initial assurances that members of both sexes and of all races and ethnic groups would be accorded genuinely equal employment opportunities in higher education. Furthermore, race and ethnicity were frequently being introduced into academic deliberations in ways that went beyond simply taking them into account as supplementary factors to be "weighed fairly" in making admissions and appointment decisions on the basis of achievement.4

Nowhere was this more evident than when Governor Jerry Brown, an ex officio trustee of the California State University system, led an undisguised attempt to put political considerations ahead of the traditional academic and merit criteria in picking a university president for Los Angeles State in 1979.5 Many of the trustees (including some of the governor's own appointees) were deeply offended when he announced his decision to support a Mexican American candidate long before the selection process was completed or he had had a chance to meet the other candidates and make a comparative judgment. One trustee told the governor she had not come to the meeting simply to endorse his campaign promises or to ratify a decision that had been predetermined.

Finally, on a written ballot, the trustees chose a black candidate by a vote of eight to seven. The governor tried to block the appointment by calling for a tabling of the decision in the hope that the attorney general's office would make a different ruling. His parliamentary maneuvers failed.

Part 3
Mexican American leaders in Los Angeles immediately denounced the board's rejection, calling it "another humiliation for the Hispanic people." State Senator Joseph B. Montoya (D.-Los Angeles) spoke of his own "sense of betrayal" and said members of the Sacramento-based six-member Chicano Caucus had been led to believe the appointment of a Mexican American had been "sewed up" before the meeting. He called for the firing of the chancellor and said that, unless the trustees reconsidered their vote, he would make a specific request to cut the budget of the state university system.

By all accounts, this was an angry trustee meeting. The "political meddling" of Governor Brown (the words were those of the outgoing board chairman) and the willingness of some trustees to go along and "play the game" were viewed by many as a serious compromise of the board's autonomy. No one doubted that the trustees sought a more cosmopolitan and diverse membership on the campuses. But to argue, as many of the trustees did, that they should have chosen a Mexican American for president because Hispanics constituted at the time 16 percent of the student body (15 percent were Asian Americans and 14 percent were blacks) or because they were "the fastest growing minority in Los Angeles County" was to suggest that the selection of a university president is not an administrative but an ethnic appointment.6 In one form or another, that argument would be heard--and more difficult to resist--in the years ahead.

I remember well a university president at a major public institution telling me in 1985, at the end of a long conversation, "It's not that your ideas about affirmative action when you were a college president were wrong. It's just that times are different today. We have long since passed nondiscrimination and equal treatment." I knew, of course, that he was right. A few years later a former CSU trustee who had been on the board in the 1970s was even more candid when we met at a luncheon on the Stanford campus: "I'm sure you realize that with your views on affirmative action, today's board would not appoint you president of any of their campuses." I knew that was true too.

It was only a matter of time before the basic principles we affirmed at San Jose State, and the policy announced by the board of trustees in 1974, would become irrelevant and unpopular not only within the CSU system itself but throughout much of higher education. I think it is fair to say that for most university presidents and their administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, affirmative action took a very different turn--from one principally favoring outreach programs and efforts that give assistance to disadvantaged individuals to enable them to meet the prevailing standards of competition (which is why most Americans tell the pollsters they generally support affirmative action) to one much more sympathetic to preference-based policies that suspend standards of competition by making exceptions for certain (but not all) minority groups and permit race to become the predominant (and often the only) factor affecting admissions decisions or faculty appointments.

Two separate but inseparable matters come into play when I look for ways to explain why most presidents and the institutions they head have adopted affirmative action policies and practices so markedly different from those we set in place at San Jose State. One directly involves my experience during the student and faculty strikes at San Francisco State in 1968–69, where the daily turmoil was fueled by the "nonnegotiable demands" of black students for whom I represented "liberal bullshit" (their term) and became (by their own admission) a "target" who had to be vigorously opposed (frequently by violence and attempts at intimidation).7 The other reflects my own growing awareness that the new left's demand for "relevance" in university education in the late 1960s and early 1970s was in many ways the forerunner of multiculturalism, which would soon embody the more radical egalitarianism that frequently seeped into the affirmative action efforts of administrators, faculty members, and students to "diversity" campus life.

In my interview in July 1970 with the CSU Board of Trustees as one of three remaining candidates for the presidency of San Jose State, the first question put to me came from Governor Ronald Reagan. Looking back on all the disruption and trouble that took place at San Francisco State, he asked me what had I learned as a lifelong Democrat (he had done his homework) that I didn't know before. It was a good question, and I told him I still didn't have a complete answer. But one thing I had seen with my own eyes, I said, left its mark in an indelible way. Many members of the faculty with a strong commitment to liberal values, and who regularly denounced the right-wing elements off campus, either refused or were unable to see that the left-wing forces on campus were subverting the very liberal principles they professed to support. It was especially disheartening, I told the board, that only a handful of faculty could see that university life was being threatened by the very extremism of the black/radical explosion at San Francisco State and that faculty indifference, cowardice, and sentimentality were offering no real defense.

This prompted another question from Governor Reagan. He wanted to know what I had concluded about the newly formed Black Studies Program at San Francisco State. I told him that I disagreed sharply with its basic assumptions, which included an all-black curriculum (black history, black psychology, the geography of blackness, black arts and humanities, etc.) that was designed for black students only who would be taught by an all-black faculty whose sole and avowed purpose was to concentrate on blackness. I could not defend on academic grounds a program that confused education with indoctrination.

I need hardly have reminded the board that these were not normal times, such as the 1950s and the 1960s, when there was lots of money and presidents enjoyed the quiet life of accommodation by presiding over disputes about expansion or departmental boundaries or appointments of provosts and deans. What became clear in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that those already in place in the president's office--and the presidents themselves--were not schooled in crisis intervention on the scale and to the degree of intensity the new times required. Thus I pointed out to the board that, if I were to assume a college presidency at this particular time, my views about the problems of university governance, academic freedom, the rule of law, and so forth would have been shaped in part by what it meant for those nominally in charge of the campus to "live in a bunker," a familiar term used to describe the president's lot at San Francisco State in 1968–69 while the radicals pounded on the walls screaming slogans on behalf of student power. At the very least I had been alerted to the signs of authoritarianism and ideological intoxication. As things turned out, in my first year or two at San Jose State I discovered it was an enormous asset to step into a presidency with some firsthand experience of having watched many administrators and faculty members at San Francisco State, lacking any reliable standards or "thought models" to help them deal with a campus in crisis, evade the responsibility of taking a firm stand lest they alienate somebody, preferring instead (or simply finding it easer) to hide behind good intentions or moralistic incantations.

Most people would agree, I think, that there is such a thing as a university culture and that presidents are a conspicuous part of it. More precisely, they belong to a specialized subculture that is central to the larger university culture. That culture is predominantly liberal and proud of its long history as a major agent not only of scientific and technological creativity but of economic and social change. And it is clearly the economic and social realm that gives momentum to the university's claim to be a results-oriented institution. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is virtually part of the president's job description that he accept the new tasks a system of rising expectations demands. Its most recent and notable content began with the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, with the additional claim of many of yesterday's youth to have occupied the high moral ground in resisting the Vietnam War. As they so often proclaimed, they were the ones who defined the expectations of university life.

My point is that, by the late 1960s and into the early years of the 1970s, university leaders were increasingly under siege. Affirmative action was one way of demonstrating their legitimacy and the institution's recognition of the claims of women and minorities. It showed their concern for the underdog and their eagerness to give their campuses a forward-looking image--in a word, that the university was relevant and responsive. At a time when widespread self-awareness of the existence of shameful inequalities screamed out from every newspaper on a daily basis, what better way to display one's liberal credentials, enhance one's legitimacy in the eyes of students and faculty, and carry forward the civil rights moral agenda than by embracing a vigorous program of affirmative action. In short, race-exclusive and group-oriented affirmative action policies became the progressive, open-minded imperative for all "right-thinking liberals." It was inevitable that the presidents, in keeping with the changing demands of the times, should surround themselves with like-minded administrators who could pass the affirmative action–multiculturalist oath of allegiance.

But as I have thought about why presidents, administrators, and faculty have immersed themselves in the rising tides of affirmative action over the last twenty years, it is clear to me that nothing has played a bigger role than the seemingly unstoppable rise of "diversity" as the most compelling value of the university. I don't know anyone who doubts that we are a diverse society or that the university--in particular, a public university--has a responsibility to serve increasingly diverse constituencies by considering the interest of the institution and of society in their admissions. What we have witnessed too often, however, is the capture of "diversity" by multiculturalism (its virtual synonym) in the implicit (but I would argue imaginary) belief that there exists on our campuses an alleged consensus that the integrative powers of "diversity" will heal the divisive attitudes toward race. Given what we know about the ideological and intellectual divisions within the university, I remain very skeptical. It seems just as likely (I hope I am wrong) that a "healing process" will be converted into a series of intensified struggles among campus participants with rival views and values, with the result that any presumed solidarity (among faculty, for example,) on the virtues of diversity will give way before the strong appetites of group interests.

A student or parent who reads a university publication these days encounters the glowing and unceasing praise of diversity (much of which is very shallow). The "diversity mantra" is so beguiling and pervasive that everyone invokes it. Anyone listening to the inauguration addresses of new presidents will hear them not only speak of "diversity" as a major commitment but virtually place it at the center of their educational philosophy. What one is not likely to hear is how they intend to achieve "diversity" without reopening the door to race-based group preferences (if, as at the University of California, they have been declared officially impermissible), which for many years confirmed the public's perception that ability, qualification, and merit no longer prevailed.

Part 4
I hope it is clear that I have never believed affirmative action is an idea or concept devoid of justification. Furthermore, ever since it became the center of national controversy, affirmative action has too often been framed as one of absolute certainty on all sides, to the point of fostering a moralism that reduces the issue to a conflict of "right" vs. "wrong" rather than of "right" vs. "right." Yet I am deeply bothered by the way it has been practiced on many campuses because I am convinced that notwithstanding all of the rhetoric and rivers of ink in defense of affirmative action/multiculturalism/diversity in higher education, it moves us further away from accepting nondiscrimination as a principal social value and much closer to encouraging the use of race as a predominant (sometimes sole) basis of admissions and curriculum decisions in our colleges and universities. My point can be easily misunderstood or distorted. While I strongly support full equality before the law for every individual regardless of race or background, I am not calling for a simplistic notion of a color-blind America. What I am questioning is our excessive reliance today on the "new politics of identities and categories" that has not only driven so many of our public policy decisions but continues to foster the use of race-specific organizing efforts that have hampered the building of mutual trust across racial and cultural lines.

It is equally troubling when serious opportunities for critical examination and self-appraisal of a complex course of action--especially by those in the top echelons of the administration--diminish or even disappear. Instead of efforts to put a good face on the unanticipated consequences of various "forward-looking policies" driven by different forms of affirmative action, we have needed candor and straight talk. Too often there has not been even the slightest intimation that deepening the omnipresence of race or the virtues of racial classification have come at a high cost. I have in mind the creation of segregated dorms, the emergence of entire departments totally dominated by race, the tolerance and even encouragement of courses in ethnic studies in separate departments that demonstrably do not meet sound academic standards, the call for unprecedented speech codes designed to offer special protections to racially sensitive minorities, the growing racialization of university life--these are but a few of the deceptions that too often have been rationalized away by administrators who invoke the principle of "diversity" (without openly acknowledging many of the dysfunctional consequences of administering it) and turn to one another for validation.

If I have learned anything over the past thirty years, it is that there is no airtight, completely coherent, unassailable, or successfully holistic position on the questions raised by affirmative action that is not only theoretically perfect but also instrumentally practical. It is not as if anyone can justly claim to have separated truth from falsehood. Every intelligent person will be vulnerable to the twists and turns of unintended consequences. What troubled me about the message sent by California's voters when they passed Proposition 209 was its moral simplicity: If affirmative action requires the use of race, then end it--period. But its passage does not end the policy debate. The backers of Proposition 209 asserted the superiority of pure principle. They asked, "Doesn't every one agree that we want an equal opportunity society?" Of course they do. But this isn't the only question. As anyone having to make hard decisions has discovered, affirmative action in practice is a matter of trade-offs between competing claims and interests.8

As an educator, I believe a more useful and credible way to think about affirmative action is in terms of what Eugene Bardach, a faculty member in UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Public Policy, has called a "social contribution theory for universities." It considers affirmative action as a way of "contributing to the larger social good" by trying, for example, to bring African Americans into a community that many of them find unwelcoming (admittedly, a goal that has not always been accomplished very well). As institutions, universities are in the business of making their own contribution, principally through the advancement of "knowledge" but also through the development of useful citizens. Clearly there is no objection in principle to the university's rendering public service. In fact, a major reason for its existence is inextricably bound up with public service. Contributing to racial harmony or integration is not something universities have always been expected to do. But their symbolic and practical roles have shifted in the last half century. Like the K–12 schools, they are seen as having to play more of a social service role. This is not all to the good, but some of it is good--and there is more that is simply unavoidable on practical and political grounds.

In this general context, the question is, What are the appropriate limits on affirmative action? My own theory of limits does not yield a precise numerical guideline, though it may provide a rule of thumb (which is often good enough). But I would contend that the more affirmative action conflicts with the basic mission of a university, and particular departments within universities, the less affirmative action the institution should be doing. The converse is also true. Thus affirmative action for admission to a school of social work is a better idea than it is for admission to a graduate program in physics.

I have long argued that the difficult and troubling issues of race, equality, and affirmative action cannot readily be reduced to the kind of moral absolutism that denies legitimacy to the inevitable complexities and nuances inherent in the problem. Is some degree of race consciousness never defensible? I do not think there is only one morally correct answer. I think most people agree (as I do) that race is too often considered excessively and sub rosa. What is needed is a way of determining (in Professor Philip Siegelman's words) "the relevance of race that falls between none at all and too much." I reject both of the ideologically pure extremes, one being that anything that overcomes the disadvantages of race is acceptable and the other that taking race into account is never appropriate for any reason whatsoever.

I generally share the perspective of James Q. Wilson, emeritus professor at UCLA, who insists on judging cases differently because in some organizations excellence at a specific task is thought to be the sole or dominant criterion for office, but in other organizations some combination of excellence and social representation is considered important. "We cannot say that we must never take race into account," says Wilson, "any more than we can say that we must always take it into account." Distinctions are important. No one would favor choosing a brain surgeon or an NFL quarterback on the basis of race. But should a city police chief making an undercover assignment in the black community be completely blind to a candidate's race?

Colleges and universities present their own special concerns. If a university decides it does not want an all-white freshman class, and if it concludes that race alone will not be the decisive factor, shouldn't it be given the latitude to offer some sort of special consideration to promising black students with lower-than-the-highest SAT scores and high school grade-point averages?

But how much lower? This is not a semantic quibble. In its justification for granting any form of special consideration in undergraduate admissions (which is a common feature of the admissions process), a university must also be forthright in identifying the limits of its affirmative action policy. Policies that admit minority students who clearly lack the academic qualifications to make it to graduation should be abandoned. Yet admission officials need enough room to make discretionary judgments in selecting an unspecified (meaning not quota-driven or predetermined) number of blacks or Hispanics who clearly meet the institution's academic standards and can be expected to earn a degree at rates that in the years ahead will no longer be dramatically lower than those of whites and Asians. Only now are universities beginning to recognize that instead of bickering over the "right" number of students to admit in the name of affirmative action, it is time to address the failure of academic preparation for many minority students seeking higher education.

As noted earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Bakke decision of 1978, ruled that race in combination with other factors was constitutionally permissible (although there were many fuzzy edges to the Court's decisions). This is still the law of the land. Justice Powell seemed to be saying that admissions officials should place all applicants in the same pool and then choose, on an individual basis,9 who is acceptable and who is not--with race no more decisive than "other qualities and qualifications deemed important." Anyone considered and evaluated in such a "good faith effort" would have no basis to complain about equal treatment. In fact, I have always suspected that if race had been considered from the beginning as only a "minor bump factor" in college admissions, we might not have the problems we face today. Furthermore, it is no secret that few colleges and universities base admissions solely on merit. Given the many different grounds on which special preferences are awarded to incoming freshmen, I have never been persuaded that any factor may be taken into account except race, ethnicity, and gender. Race and gender are not necessarily trivial aspects of a person's individuality. And while race is not a perfect proxy for a disadvantaged background (which some believe is the proper criterion to employ when trying to fashion a more inclusive student body), race is still one of many indicators and predictors, although not always the most important one.

Whether as an administrator or researcher, it was always my feeling that all of us who were participating in this wrenching debate over affirmative action were talking not just about free-standing theoretical arguments or formal theories but about multilayered ideas whose implementation entails risks and many unknowns. It was not long before I became suspicious of those who engaged in excessively insistent expressions of certitude, which they also claimed was the high moral ground but that too often were revealed as hubristic. My own experience and pragmatic temper tell me it is time to get beyond the simplistic categories of for or against.

1 Student admissions at San Jose State was never the major issue it became at the "elite" institutions where there were not enough openings in the freshman class for the large number of students who applied. California's Master Plan mandated that students who finished in the top third of their graduating high school class were automatically eligible for admission to one of the (then) nineteen state colleges. Furthermore, the larger the number of students enrolled, the larger the budget resources provided to each campus by the state legislature.

2 Affirmative action has always been governed by two sets of criteria with quite different genealogies. The other view of the Constitution asserts that the equal protection clause permits "race" to become a factor in employment when identification by race is intended to help those for whose protection the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted.

3 The abbreviated comments that follow are based on my notes of the meeting. The staff members of the Civil Rights Commission present were John Buggs, staff director; Jess Miller, director of the Office of Federal Evaluations; and Maywanda Michael, whose duties involved the monitoring of HEW-related matters. For a more extended discussion of affirmative action in faculty hiring, see my "Minority Faculty Hiring: Problems and Prospects," American Scholar, winter 1990.

4 This was a central argument made by Justice Lewis Powell in the 1978 Bakke decision.

5 For a more general treatment of selecting college presidents, see my "Politics and Pressure in Picking a College President," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 22, 1979.

6 It is worth noting that some five hundred faculty members at Fresno State (one of the campuses in the CSU system), disturbed by the politically infected trustee meeting of the previous spring, felt it necessary in August to take the unprecedented action of sending the board a resolution (passed overwhelmingly) stating that "political influence is looked upon with disdain" and calling for "merit only" to be considered in the appointment of Fresno's next president. (Some of the same pressures that sought to have Governor Brown's Mexican American candidate appointed president of Los Angeles State were already at work to make certain that this time he got the job at Fresno State.) The faculty message was clear: Don't pick the best-qualified black or white or Mexican American but the best-qualified man or woman--period.

7 For an extended analysis of the tumultuous year (1968–69) at San Francisco State, see my "Liberal in the Middle" in Political Passages, edited by John H. Bunzel (New York: Free Press, 1988), pp. 132–61.

8 Harvard's distinguished law professor Paul A. Freund warned against the doctrinaire in his beliefs, the fanatic who holds to absolutes, whether that absolute is liberty and nothing else, equality and nothing else, or truth and nothing else. He liked to quote Lord Acton's statement that "an absolute principle is as absurd as absolute power." Professor Freund's rule was simple and clear: When you perceive a truth, look for the balancing truth.

9 I am opposed to group-based racial or gender preferences because I place a higher value on individual achievement than group affiliation or compensation in the competitive contest for admissions. But I have no quarrel with Stanford University taking gender into account when it seeks to have a student body of men and women of roughly the same number. The point to stress, however, is that while we often construct public policies that provide social justice to a class, race, or ethnic group, a university does not admit a class, race, or ethnic group. It admits a person.

For a brief discussion of efforts to replace race with "disadvantages," see my comments in a six-way discussion titled "CCRI: Whither the Conversation?" in Academic Questions, spring 1997.

I am indebted to my colleague, Philip Siegelman, emeritus professor of political science at San Francisco State, for invaluable comments and suggestions.