The Fight Over University Women

Four years ago, the first complaint of university sex discrimination was filed with the secretary of labor by a woman’s organization called the Women’s Equity Action League. WEAL requested that an Executive Order, which, as of 1968, prohibited sex discrimination by federal contractors, be enforced against universities. Millions of dollars in federal contracts were handed out every year to academic institutions which, as WEAL claimed, practiced extensive and vicious prejudice against women instructors and students. WEAL appended eighty pages of evidence for its charges and asked that HEW examine all universities and colleges holding federal contracts to see whether they were complying with the Executive Order.

Within six months complaints against more than one hundred academic institutions were filed by women’s groups.1 Under this pressure HEW’s Office for Civil Rights began conducting reviews of the compliance of universities. Almost everywhere HEW found evidence of prejudice. The university administrators, in effect, had to promise to mend their ways or lose their federal allowances. Like other employers holding government contracts, they were required to draw up programs to eliminate discrimination in hiring.

The academic campaign against HEW on campus started on October 8, 1971, when Columbia’s President William J. McGill, as Life’s guest editor, complained that with “no prior warning” HEW had instructed Columbia “to get into [federal contract] compliance within thirty days or face a cut-off of federal funds.” McGill’s claim that Columbia had “no prior warning” was, as we shall see, utterly false. But within a few weeks Professor Sidney Hook of New York University was denouncing HEW’s thirty-day edicts. While women’s organizations were busy filing more university discrimination charges, Hook was busy telling university officials just what they wanted to hear: administrators “should not yield to [HEW] …ultimata.”2 Hook organized the Committee on Academic Non-Discrimination and Integrity, and in one article after another male professors wailed about HEW interference on campus.

These protectors of academic integrity against the HEW civil rights office use two kinds of argument. According to the first, university hiring practices are fine just as they are. Universities practice a “merit system” of employment.3 Since a merit system is, by definition, free of sex discrimination, HEW’s pressure to hire and upgrade women faculty is superfluous and, if successful, would corrupt “standards of excellence.”4 This argument is consistent. Unfortunately, its premise—that universities practice a merit system—is false.

Not all HEW critics agree that academic hirings and firings are so fair or so virtuous. Some even grant (sometimes) that universities have treated women badly. But, they claim, HEW remedies have bad side effects. First, HEW investigators ignore university rights to due process (e.g., by issuing orders that universities must end discrimination within thirty days). Second, HEW insists on increased numerical representation of women on faculty—a numbers game that is said to be logically absurd since any other group could demand faculty representation. Finally, by requiring that the universities set numerical goals, HEW is allegedly imposing a quota system that causes reverse discrimination against…


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