William J. Bennett, President Reagan's nominee as secretary of education, repeated his opposition to racial quotas and preferences in hiring yesterday and said the federal humanities agency he heads had increased its minority hiring without them.
"I do not think we should count by race," Bennett, who is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, told a Senate confirmation hearing. "I believe we should get to a colorblind society. In 1968 I was regarded as . . . very liberal [when he expressed that view while teaching in Mississippi]. Now I am regarded as holding a conservative view. It is a very strongly held belief."
During a 3 1/2-hour appearance before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Bennett also refused to say whether he thought the Education Department should be abolished as President Reagan advocated in 1980 but said he expected it to continue. He said Reagan had not asked him to dismantle the department and promised if confirmed "to run it as effectively as possible."
Because of congressional resistance, Reagan dropped efforts to eliminate the department, but he said in an interview last month that he has not abandoned his belief that its functions should be turned over to other agencies. He told Bennett that his first job as secretary of education would be to conduct an efficiency study of the department.
The NEH is one of three government agencies that refused to comply with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's direction to set minority hiring goals and several senators questioned Bennett's refusal last year to do so. Bennett said at the time that he refused to do so because he believes in "human equality."
Yesterday he said that since he became NEH director in December 1981, the proportion of all minorities and women in high-level jobs had increased only from 30 percent to 31 percent but the proportion of blacks had increased from 3 percent to 9 percent of the top staff.
When Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) said only whites were hired by the agency as professionals in fiscal year 1984, Bennett admonished him with a line from "Oedipus at Colonus," a Greek play, to "take a man in the totality of his acts" and recited the figures giving "the full story."
He explained that the increase in minorities occurred through "recruitment" not racial preference.
In his opening statement, Bennett declared that he would seek "full enforcement" of all civil rights laws but would "prevent the department from being needlessly meddlesome or intrusive."
Bennet was introduced at the hearing by warm statements from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who originally had opposed him as "too liberal" to head the humanities agency, and from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who knew him when Bennett was a graduate student at Harvard University and Moynihan was a professor there.
But he soon was questioned sharply by several senators about Reagan's efforts to abolish the education department and about news reports last weekend that Reagan would try again in the fiscal 1986 budget to set an income cutoff of $32,500 on subsidized, guaranteed loans for college students.
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.) indicated that he might try to delay the Senate vote on Bennett's nomination unless the president says he will cease trying to abolish the department, which was established in 1980.
Bennett said, "I recognize the political reality" that there are not enough votes in Congress to abolish it.
"I have no intention of spending a large part of my time in the next four years debating the existence of the Department of Education," Bennett said. "I have other priorities."
Bennett said he did not know the details of administration proposals on student loans.
He added that he supported tuition tax credits for parents of children in private schools, favored magnet schools to encourage integration "without some of the problems of compulsory assignment by race" and backed a proposal by Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) to clarify federal laws against sex discrimination.