Whatever the benefits of affirmative action, one undeniable downside is the element of disrespect it introduces onto our campus.
This week’s appointment of Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies Evelynn M. Hammonds as Dean of Harvard College was greeted mostly with disinterest; students tend to ignore the vicissitudes of administrative hiring.
But on one Harvard mailing list to which I subscribe, an impassioned 28-message e-brawl broke out. The subject was the relevance of the most visible attributes of our new dean—her race and gender—to her appointment.
“Who…is Evelyn Hammonds?” the provocative e-mail began, “I’ve never seen her even mentioned in connection with undergraduate affairs, and it seems…crazy that they passed over people like [Harvard College Professor] Jay [M.] Harris to choose her.”
This was followed by a coda intended to provoke: “Wait, hold the phone, she’s black? And a woman? Oh, nevermind then.”
A reply arrived within six minutes. “Right, you know nothing about her, ergo it’s affirmative action. Why don’t you try engaging on substance instead of crass identity politics?”
It is interesting to see how those that advocate affirmative action in hiring and university admissions hypocritically turn around and consider any mention of these often institutionalized and legislated practices "crass" and taboo when discussing specific hires. If one sees affirmative action as a necessity of some sort, then why decry mention of such standards when they may benefit a particular candidate? They want elements such as race, gender and orientation to be considered, yet fail to see how logic dictates that if group status is not only a legitimate but in many cases a required factor in the selection process, then it is hardly unreasonable to conclude that such may well have played a role in the final decision.
Of course, despite institutionalized affirmative action, or even just non-regulated external pressures to make decisions that "promote diversity," one should not assume, without concrete evidence, that in any particular case group status is ever the sole reason for a decision, or even the deciding factor. But what affirmative action and "diversity" advocacy do, since the process is never entirely transparent, is generate suspicion about the validity and fairness of the process. This in turn leads to a disrespect of the system and misgivings about the decision-makers. It is misguided to simply assume Hammonds was hired because she was a black female - but it is no way misguided to question whether or not her race and gender played a role when advocates and often regulations suggest they should.