Program Founders Call It Alternative to Affirmative Action

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N the broadest sense,'' JoAnn Moody admits, the Compact for Faculty Diversity fits in the category of affirmative action. But Ms. Moody, vice-president of the New England Board of Higher Education, and others involved in the compact make it clear that its participants should carry none of the stigma sometimes associated with that term.

They are academically qualified people who will do the same work and meet the same standards as their colleagues in various science, math, and engineering graduate programs around the country, they say.

Beyond that, says Ansley Abraham, director of the doctorate scholars program with the Southern Regional Education Board, there's nothing wrong in considering other things in hiring college faculty, among them ``diversity - to give all students a more well-rounded educational experience.''

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But efforts to give minority students a helping hand into the upper echelons of higher education have generated controversy at least since the late 1970s, when Allan Bakke, a white student seeking entrance to a University of California medical school, sued because minority students with lower test scores were accepted ahead of him. That case gave currency to the term ``reverse discrimination.''

There may be a need to bring more minority students and faculty into higher education, but quotas are not the best way to address that need, says Linda Chavez, president of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity. The basic problem, as she sees it, is too many schools with hiring goals competing for too few minority scholars, with a resulting ``bidding war.''

Ms. Chavez says affirmative action is likely to become a hot issue in the late '90s, especially since it connects with growing public discontent over immigration. ``Eighty percent of new immigrants are members of designated minority groups and thus eligible for ... preference programs,'' she says.

The topic could heat up even sooner in California. Those who claim that public policies embrace racial or ethnic preferences plan to put the ``California Civil Rights Initiative'' on the March 1996 statewide ballot. This initiative would roll back any state or local policies that use ``race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group....''

Thomas Wood, a Berkeley, Calif., resident who's heading the initiative effort, says he has no objection to using other factors, such as socioeconomic status, as guides in admissions or hiring. ``But we need to get race and ethnicity out of the picture.''

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