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President Bush Seeks Sweeping Changes on Civil Rights Panel

President Bush Seeks Sweeping Changes on Civil Rights Panel

Gerald Reynolds to replace outgoing chairwoman Mary Frances Berry

By Charles DervaricsMajor changes are underway at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that may have wide-ranging implications for colleges and universities seeking guidance from the Bush administration on affirmative action in higher education.

President Bush has named Gerald Reynolds, former assistant education secretary for civil rights, as the new chairman of the eight-member panel. Reynolds replaces Dr. Mary Frances Berry, who has served on the panel for more than half of its 47-year existence. Berry has served as chairwoman since 1993, acting as a forceful advocate for affirmative action programs.

Also leaving the commission is vice chair Cruz Reynoso, who along with Berry presented a recent report criticizing the Bush administration for inaction on civil rights issues, including affirmative action.

Berry and Reynoso originally had believed their terms of office ran through January. But the Bush administration maintained their terms ended this month and made new appointments in early December. Also joining the commission is Ashley Taylor, former Virginia deputy attorney general.

Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican appointee and a current panel member, will move up to vice chair under the reorganization.
Observers across the political spectrum say the switch means major changes in the direction of the commission, which, despite its research and oversight role, has been the subject of partisan bickering for years.

“This changing of the guard from Berry to Reynolds is not only a change in philosophy but also a generational change,” said Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Educational Opportunity, a conservative think tank where Reynolds once worked as counsel.

“The civil rights commission is in a very different world now than when it was founded,” he told Black Issues. “While discrimination still exists, it is not the principal hurdle to minority progress today,” he said. Clegg maintained that economic and educational opportunities are more pressing issues for minorities today.

He said Reynolds was a “wonderful choice” and would seek a new role for the commission different from other federal civil rights agencies.

But administration critics said the move represents a major setback. “These new appointments mark the death of the civil rights commission as an independent agency,” said William Taylor, president of the Citizens Commission for Civil Rights, a Washington, D.C., organization.

“The commission for years was regarded as an agency that is independent,” according to Taylor. But the new appointments call into question that role, he added.

When nominated for the OCR post in 2001, Reynolds had run into opposition from Senate Democrats for his views and lack of experience on some issues, Taylor said. Reynolds never won Senate confirmation for that post, and he served as assistant secretary only through a short-term recess appointment.

Reynolds’ appointment to the civil rights commission does not require Senate confirmation.

In addition to appointing Reynolds, the president also is likely to transfer another senior OCR leader to the civil rights panel. Both Taylor and Clegg said the president is likely to name Kenneth Marcus as the commission’s new staff director.

Marcus has served as OCR’s de facto leader, without formal designation, since Reynolds’ short-term appointment there expired. He would replace a staff director who had served since the Clinton administration.

Reynolds will be “pro-active” as civil rights chairman, Clegg said, but he will examine different issues than the previous leadership team. “We don’t need another agency compiling data on racial discrimination,” he said. “We need to think creatively about what the commission can do that doesn’t duplicate the work of other agencies.”

Berry and Reynoso both had emphasized the importance of affirmative action in higher education through studies and commission investigations. In a recent report, the two cited “missed opportunities” by the Bush administration to forge consensus on civil rights issues, including affirmative action.

“Despite evidence to the contrary, this administration does not acknowledge that affirmative action remains a valuable tool to providing equal opportunity,” they wrote.

Taylor, a former commission staff director in the late 1960s, said that both Berry and Reynoso sought in-depth discussions about many hot-button issues in higher education. These included so-called “percentage plans” in which states would replace affirmative action with plans that guarantee admission to the top 10 to 20 percent of students at individual high schools.

Despite partisan disputes, he said, both leaders “struggled to make the commission continually relevant to issues today.”

Berry, a University of Pennsylvania professor, has served on the panel since 1980. Attempts to reach her for comment were not successful.

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