IS enough effort being made by premier US colleges to hire minority faculty? According to Derrick Bell, who in 1969 became the first tenured black faculty member at the Harvard Law School, the answer is no. Since '69, three blacks and five women have received tenure at Harvard Law - out of 61 positions. But no black women.
Last week Mr. Bell somewhat ungraciously, by Harvard standards, forced the lack of black women law faculty into the spotlight by saying he will request an unpaid leave of absence from the law school until a black woman is given tenure there.
Bell is considered a maverick. His tactics, which include hunger strikes and sit-ins, are questionable. The charge that Harvard is unresponsive to minorities also stretches things. Harvard has a generous affirmative action program for students. Like most top schools, the university fights vigorously, in a very competitive market, to find and hire top-flight black scholars - of which there are a tiny number in fields such as the sciences and law.
Yet in a premier university protests such as Bell's, even if only symbolic, have to be taken seriously. Civil rights gains have been significant in the past 20 years. But advances can't be taken for granted. Nor can they be allowed to atrophy. (Nor, in fact, are they at most liberal schools - where sensitivity to race and gender often constitutes a new orthodoxy.)
The issue is more complicated than hiring a black female. Efforts at ``intellectual affirmative action'' are easy to abuse. Academic politics can be brutal. In one recent case at Harvard Law School, a woman was denied tenure because she wasn't considered enough of a feminist.
Tokenism, too, is ugly. Standards ought to be uniform. Quality minority scholars want to be known for just that - quality, not skin color. Bell's protest will put the black woman one day hired (soon, we hope) on the spot. She should be hired on merit, and treated and respected accordingly. So far, Harvard says, it can't find a meritorious candidate.
We wonder. When all is said and done, is Harvard to say it can't find a single qualified black woman? Harvard? To say it can't is a slight to blacks, and itself - an institution that is a top US problem-solving schools.
Minority students need role models. Hiring standards needn't be chucked. But can they be differently approached? Perhaps standard definitions of ``merit'' - top of the class, law review, say - can be modified. It's been pointed out that the talents of many ``second rate'' college students blossom when they leave school; many have brilliant careers in the private sector, or government. Would they qualify?
In the hubbub, one thing shouldn't be forgotten. Hiring a black woman is important. But this issue shouldn't divert attention from pressing problems of the inner city, such as the breakdown of the family and alienation from mainstream culture including schools and workplaces.
These are unglamorous but very real race issues in the '90s.