Staff Q&A / Sam Starks

Sam Starks, director of Affirmative Action  Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Executive Order 11246, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on Sept. 24, 1965, prohibited any contractor doing business with the government from discriminating against any employee or applicant because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The order also commanded that contractors take “affirmative action” to ensure that applicants and employees are treated equally. Any contractor found noncompliant could have their government contract “cancelled, terminated or suspended” and be declared ineligible for further federal contracts.

As the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the federal government, Penn is mandated to produce an affirmative action plan that monitors the University’s hiring of women, minorities, individuals with disabilities and veterans.

The responsibility of preparing that plan lies within the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs, led by Executive Director Sam Starks.

Starks, who worked in equal opportunity at Western Kentucky University and Vanderbilt University before coming to Penn, says he has always relied on his intuition, his “sense of what was right and wrong” while working to open doors for the disadvantaged.

“My parents instilled in me the idea that everyone’s the same, everyone is equal, everyone deserves an opportunity at whatever is presented before them,” he says. “From my earliest beginnings, I just remember my mom speaking about doing the right thing and my dad saying that you deserve to be where you are because of who you are—not how you look, not where you’re from—but because of the person that you are.”

The Current sat down with Starks recently for a talk about affirmative action, myths surrounding the program, and why everyone at Penn is responsible for making the University diverse and open to all.

Q. What are your main responsibilities as executive director of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs?
This office is charged with carrying out the University’s equal opportunity and affirmative action policy. One of the things that we produce is the Affirmative Action Plan. It details the data on the faculty and staff hires for the previous years. Also, we work very closely with our external offices to make sure that we are following policies and procedures in our hiring decisions. We work collaboratively with the Office of Faculty Affairs, Human Resources, with all of the schools and centers to make sure that we are all on the same page. Our office is a reporting office so we actually look into complaints that might come forward from Penn faculty and staff. More specifically, we deal with alleged complaints of harassment and discrimination. As well, we deal with faculty and staff accommodations, which allows us to work closely with that staff member and their department to make sure that they are accommodated enough to do their job appropriately. That’s just a few of the things that we do in this office, and it’s ever-expanding as we go forward.

Q. Some people view affirmative action as simply a quota system that sets aside jobs for minorities at the expense of more qualified white applicants.
When equal opportunity and affirmative action first came about, it seemed the resounding question was, ‘Does protecting minorities actually allow for discrimination against the majority?’ I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to that question, but I do know that these laws were written to be clear that everyone is protected from discrimination, regardless of color. Initially, in order to make a more balanced workforce, the federal government felt that if we created these [equal opportunity] programs, maybe it would allow for more balanced opportunities in employment and education. If you really look at the context of how equal opportunity and affirmative action programs have been shaped, they have been stretched beyond their original intent. Now equal opportunity covers women, individuals with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and veterans.

Q. So affirmative action isn’t a skin color program?
Absolutely not. We have to be realistic. Discrimination still exists, so I think that programs like affirmative action allow an organization to address social issues and various legal issues in order to make sure that we all have equal rights. Affirmative action can act as a means for overcoming historic and present-day discriminations. There is no quota that’s set forth. The University sets expectations for employment decisions and that’s how we monitor how well we’re doing here at Penn.

Q. What do you say to people who claim we are in a post-racial society and no longer need affirmative action programs?
I say take a look around. Obviously, when the programs were created and the law was mandated, it was to assist certain groups with overcoming historical challenges. However, today we can see that African Americans have done very well in attaining education and employment, in some instances, creating new opportunities as a result of various programs. We even have a president who’s a person of color. But equal rights for all of our citizens is really the core reason for these programs. We need to focus our efforts toward equality for women, for individuals with disabilities, gays and lesbians and veterans. I think that even in the future the elasticity of this policy will broaden outside of these protected classes. I think as times have changed, we have adapted and changed with them.

Q. Why do you think affirmative action can have a negative political connotation in some circles?
I think that each of us has an opportunity to look at something and determine our definition of it. If we go by the definition that the law has stated, it’s to make sure that we are treating all of our citizens the same way, pretty frankly. So through the years, absolutely, I think affirmative action and equal opportunity have been terms that have been thrown around and people have been able to come up with their own definition of those terms. Affirmative action has been one of the most prevalent efforts to ensure opportunity in regard to education and hiring. Being at Penn is a tremendous opportunity for someone to experience as a student or as an employee. We want to make sure that someone with limited opportunity in the past is given a key to open the door to the future that they ultimatley want to live in.

Q. Is there an unprotected group that may need affirmative action protections in the future?
I think the policy has the opportunity to expand. The next group that might be pulled into this type of protected class might be those who are economically challenged. People who fall into the parameters of what is called our ‘poor’ are probably going to be the next ones that we will be able to assist through this type of action because when I was growing up, we just felt that education was the norm, that you graduated from high school, you went to college, you got a job. But now, for people who are economically disadvantaged, it’s becoming more difficult to imagine and more unattainable. I think one of the things that we need to understand is that it’s going to be difficult for our society to exist if all of our persons aren’t educated with a broad scope. Our citizens need to be educated, empowered, and given an opportunity to succeed so they feel that they play a meaningful role in our society. I think that’s where our next focus lies.

Q. What do departments have to do to make sure that they are in compliance with the University’s policies?
.At Penn we have compliance officers located in our schools and centers. They play an important role assisting with the hiring process. They are trained, just as we are, to be able to deal with hiring issues that might come up with our applicants, with our interviews, and the entire pre-hire process here at Penn. We depend on everyone here to help in this charge because it’s not just the responsibility of a particular office to increase diversity…it’s the responsibility of all of us at the University to make sure that we are doing our best to bring in people from diverse backgrounds, experiences and cultures to make ourselves better and to challenge us to be the best that we can be.

Q. Can you envision a day when an office like yours will not be necessary?
I think that we’ve made great strides in our nation towards educational attainment and employment, but we still have work to do. I’m not necessarily sure that this particular office will not be needed. However, I think the expansion of the programs will allow different focuses to be done by this office. I think it would be great if we lived in a society where people were literally judged by the content of their character as opposed to the color of their skin, but until we get there, we need to continue on with the policies and procedures that we have in place to ensure that people of all colors, sexes and orientations are able to continue to work and thrive at a place like Penn.

Originally published on September 30, 2010