This is one reason their admissions practices are so politically fraught. If the composition of the student bodies of the Ivy League universities and their peer institutions were immaterial, there wouldn’t be such consternation over whether or not, say, Harvard discriminates against applicants of Asian origin. Rather, there is a widespread sense that the admissions decisions of ultra-selective colleges and universities are of great consequence, and that they ought to be scrutinized.
Nevertheless, I doubt that admissions are really the heart of the issue. Though a number of recent surveys have found that large majorities are opposed to allowing colleges to consider race in their admissions decisions, it is not at all obvious that race-blind admissions would bolster the legitimacy of elite higher education. The battle over racial preferences is, ultimately, a battle among people who share the premise that elitism in higher education is worth defending.
Reihan Salam: Elite law schools turn against conservatism
What, then, accounts for conservative wariness toward Ivy Leaguers? For one, many on the right see Ivy League universities and other similarly selective institutions as bastions of left-liberalism, where dissent from the right is tolerated only begrudgingly. Of course, one could argue that the leftism of the country’s most storied educational institutions has been exaggerated by activists looking to score points at the expense of the academy, or that the political enthusiasm of status-seeking young activists and the professors who gush over them can be safely dismissed as harmless posturing.
But even if we were to accept both of these objections as true, conservatives would still have good reason to cast a wary eye on the most richly endowed universities in the country: Their power and influence is unbefitting a democratic society. And more prosaically, it is not clear that these institutions are generating public benefits commensurate with the extraordinary public privileges they enjoy, including, most of all, their favorable tax treatment. These are, to my mind, the issues conservative critics of academic elitism ought to focus on—not racial preferences, which aim to make elitism more palatable, nor even the spread of leftist orthodoxy on elite campuses, which can be understood as a form of ritualistic self-flagellation by people who have no interest in surrendering their elite status, but rather the fact that we as a country are actively subsidizing institutions that, in their current form, have noxious spillover effects.
To defenders of America’s elite universities, the notion that they are anything other than the crown jewels of our stratified educational system amounts to sacrilege. Part of the reason is that many wealthy and influential Americans either are graduates of such universities, in which case they are invested in the idea that the imprimatur of these institutions is something of great value, or desperately want to enroll their daughters and sons in them.