Affirmative Action for Italian-Americans
September 15, 2010, 09:32 AM
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From the New York Times, by Lisa W. Foderaro:
Of all the universities and colleges that offer protections for minorities, CUNY [City University of New York] appears to be the only one that has declared Italian-Americans an official affirmative action category in employment, promising special efforts to recruit, hire and promote them, according to national higher-education groups.

The declaration, made in 1976 and reaffirmed in later years, came after pressure from Italian-American legislators in Albany responding to complaints of bias from the faculty and staff. The lawmakers also created a research institute at the university to counsel students of Italian heritage and study “the Italian-American experience.”

Yet ever since, a group of Italian-American professors and staff members at the institute and at CUNY have been making the case that the university has failed them.

They have produced a paper mountain of manifestos, research studies and lawsuits, and exposed a deep vein of grievance in an ethnic group that has risen to prominence in fields like politics, law and medicine. Some of the dissidents have lamented that Italian-Americans are still stereotyped in popular culture as mobsters or muscle-bound buffoons; others have described an unsympathetic Italian-American administrator as an “Uncle Tony” — the equivalent of an Uncle Tom. 


What could be more surprising than to find out that giving out affirmative action preferences only generates more demands for more affirmative action preferences?

Back in 2003, I wrote:

If the government started giving out goodies to people born on Wednesdays, within a year we'd see pressure groups with names like The Children of Woe lobbying for continuation of Wednesdayians' privileges. PBS would be running Wednesday Pride documentaries during Wednesday History Month about famous Wednesdaytarians like Jimmy Carter, Bruce Lee, and Rosie O'Donnell. 


In illustration of my point, Foderaro continues:

Though CUNY vigorously denies the allegations, the critics have met with some success: Outside arbiters have largely upheld claims that Italian-Americans are underrepresented in university jobs. In a written opinion, the civil rights lawyer and federal judge Constance Baker Motley, who oversaw a settlement in 1994, called the group’s lack of progress “unconscionable given the existence of an affirmative action commitment.”

Still, for some who work in higher education, the notion of protections for Italian-Americans — at a university where 70 percent of the 262,000 full-time students are black, Latino or Asian — has prompted some head-scratching.

“In the diversity of the community that is New York City, it seems particularly unusual that Italian-Americans would be considered disadvantaged,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education. “After all, in New York we had an Italian-American governor, and we may have another one coming up.”

Having a black President, however, well, that's different! 


Joseph V. Scelsa, who was one of the institute’s first directors and led the legal fight that resulted in the settlement, said Italian-Americans had succeeded in many spheres and seemed to be well represented on the staffs of other New York-area colleges, but had long been mistreated at CUNY. 


I wonder why ... 

“There have been so many cases of discrimination that I personally know of — from not getting hired to not getting promoted to not getting tenure,” said Dr. Scelsa, who is now president of the Italian American Museum in Manhattan. “It’s so clear that there’s been no serious attempt to increase our numbers.”

The latest skirmish centers on a lawsuit filed in July in United States District Court by Vincenzo Milione, a researcher at the institute, now known as the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, in memory of the state senator who first held hearings on Italian-Americans at CUNY.

The suit says CUNY and the institute’s current director, Anthony J. Tamburri, retaliated against Dr. Milione, cutting his staff and rescinding a prestigious job title, after Dr. Milione, in 2006, made a presentation to Italian-American state lawmakers. In the presentation, Dr. Milione argued that Italian-American representation on the faculty and the staff had remained flat — between 5 percent and 6 percent — over three decades, while that of groups like blacks, Latinos and Asians had climbed.

“Did affirmative action work at CUNY?” he asked in a recent interview. “Yes. But it did not work for Italian-Americans.” The New York office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that his suit had merit.

CUNY officials said that Dr. Tamburri would not comment, but they defended the university’s record. As of last fall, they said, Italian-Americans represented about 7 percent of the full-time instructional staff of 11,000, up from 5.8 percent in 1981. While the increase was modest, it occurred while the proportion of white employees fell sharply, to 54 percent from 74 percent, as the university strove to hire blacks and Latinos.

“Were CUNY not proactively engaging in affirmative action for Italian-Americans, one would expect to see Italian-American representation in CUNY fall at the same rate as that of whites,” Jennifer S. Rubain, university dean for recruitment and diversity, said in a statement. “That has not happened.”

Like other research universities that receive federal money, CUNY must extend affirmative action hiring protections to a variety of government-designated groups, including blacks and Latinos. University officials say the Department of Labor reviews its progress periodically, but not its efforts for Italian-Americans, because those are voluntary.

The government does not allow hiring quotas for the groups it designates. But as a benchmark, employers must develop estimates of the groups’ availability in the labor pool.

Yet even agreeing on how many Italian-Americans are in that pool has proved hard for the university and its critics. Indeed, the 1994 settlement called for the appointment of an expert panel to help sort out the matter. One thorny issue was whether to include people who report Italian ancestry secondarily on the long form of the census — for example, a woman who lists herself first as Irish, then Italian.

The expert panel finally determined in 2006 that half of them should be counted.

A Solomonic decision well worth the 12 years it took to emerge.

Today, CUNY says, Italian-Americans make up 8.4 percent of the qualified candidates in the available labor pool; Dr. Milione has called that estimate low. ...

Others see the tortured history of Italian-Americans at the university as a case study in an old bit of wisdom: No good deed goes unpunished.

“The best of intentions are quickly mired in the potential for litigation and additional charges of discrimination,” said Andy Brantley, president of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. “


Indeed.