The Dueling Deities of Harvard

The institution is driven to protect legacy and wealth, but also to create a more diverse and egalitarian student body.

Anti-affirmative-action activist Edward Blum, the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, speaks to reporters at the "Rally for the American Dream—Equal Education Rights for All."
Anti-affirmative-action activist Edward Blum, the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, speaks to reporters at the "Rally for the American Dream—Equal Education Rights for All." (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Updated at 2:35 p.m. ET on November 19, 2018

The Harvard College admissions office: more sinned against than sinning, and currently serving two masters. One is the god of rich things, who demands a reactionary embrace of wealth and privilege, including the czarist notion that you can inherit Harvard the way you can inherit hemophilia or a winter palace. This is the logic of “legacy admissions”—a rare instance of a morally unpalatable fact retaining its precise name. The Harvard god of rich things also favors the children of tremendous wealth, and of people who are so important that even mighty Harvard wants to have them in its sphere of influence. All of these students—born reaching for silver teething rings, likely educated at rigorous private schools and thus “able to do the work”—will be treated with special care in the admissions office, and many will get in, some despite being below profile.

The other master is an avenging angel on a radical mission: to transform Harvard College—of all places!—into a utopian society, an egalitarian gathering of young people of all backgrounds, including the poor, the homeless, those who will be the first in their family to attend college. While the god of rich things favors the children of white men (almost all of the super-wealthy and most of the legacies are white), the god of reparations wants to see fewer and fewer white students on campus. Last year, the college reached an important mile marker: For the first time in history, Harvard’s freshman class had fewer white students than nonwhite ones.

This strange situation—hereditary privilege and social justice sitting side by side—has left the institution and its students vulnerable to ugly accusations and to embittered cries for fairness. Almost every student on campus is the subject of harsh appraisals based on how others assume they got in. The New York Times recently published an article about five freshmen friends at Harvard; one of them, the daughter of two Harvard alumni, was unsettled when a classmate “contrasted people who were ‘super qualified to be here’ with legacies.” Assumptions about affirmative action have led other observers to perceive Harvard’s many black and Hispanic students as beneficiaries of lowered admissions standards, rather than students who are themselves “super qualified to be here.”

In fact, the only students who aren’t vulnerable to assumptions of underqualification are Asian. The heartless assumption about Asian Americans at highly selective colleges is that they are, if anything, overqualified—academic beasts of burden, whose strange willingness to work endlessly makes them a vast group of curve-busters, who disappear into the hard sciences and are never heard from again until you need a knee replacement or a shunt in your brain.

All of these factors have led to the current lawsuit against the Harvard admissions office, which alleges discrimination against Asian Americans—who have, by far, the highest test scores of any cohort in the applicant pool, and yet are admitted at a lower rate than any other group—but has the real aim of ending affirmative action. The intellectual author of the lawsuit is a man named Edward Blum, the president of an anti-affirmative-action organization called Students for Fair Admissions. The group previously spearheaded a suit against the University of Texas, on behalf of a white woman who was denied admission. The Supreme Court found in that university’s favor, but Blum is undaunted. By making Asians rather than a white student the plaintiffs in the new suit, he has created a more palatable equation for our confused times.

The lawsuit has thrust many facts into the public view that Harvard would have liked to keep secret. An internal investigation conducted in 2013 concluded that the admissions process was biased against Asians, yet the admissions office never did anything to remedy the fact. Previously confidential notes made by admissions officers reveal that many Asian students were torpedoed because of low scores in the squishy category of personal qualities; these notes suggested that many Asians just aren’t the right kind of people for Harvard—not enough self-expression, norm-breaking, insouciance. “Would she relax and have any fun?” was written on the application of one high-achieving female student, which seems both racist and sexist—the kind of thing a guy on the make says at a party: What can be done to make this serious Asian girl let her hair down?

Harvard’s defense is strong, and will probably save it in the short term—even if the short term involves an appeal. Like all elite private colleges in this country, Harvard has an admissions process that is indescribably careful, personal, and labor-intensive. Moreover, its applicant pool is singular, so deep with talent—the 500 or 600 kids at the top of each incoming class are young people, in the words of the admissions committee, who possess a form of “distinguishing excellence”—that concerns about the caliber of classes diminishing under the new priorities are unfounded. The college is certainly fielding a more interesting and intellectually varied class than it was a century ago when it was admitting every man—right down to the daydreamers and troublemakers at the bottom of the class—from a handful of New England prep schools. Over the years, I’ve known many Harvard undergraduates. I’ve known quite a few who were unhappy at the college. But I’ve never once met one—whether a legacy student or a low-income student from an underrepresented minority group—who didn’t seem like an extraordinary person in his or her own right. The college has just about the whole country to choose from, and it knows what it wants an ideal class to include.

Creating this exciting new multiracial and economically diverse Harvard has been the project of its storied dean of admissions, a thoughtful, web-belted member of the Harvard College Class of 1968 named William Fitzsimmons, who has spent more than 30 years in the job but who had a hard time getting in. In those days, few kids like Fitzsimmons, from a Catholic high school—Archbishop Williams in Braintree, Massachusetts, a town an hour from Cambridge—were encouraged to apply to Harvard.* Two of his teachers refused to write recommendations, because they thought the school was “a bunch of Communists, a bunch of atheists, a bunch of rich snobs”—let that be a lesson about the prescience of Catholic-high-school teachers. Despite their counsel, he applied, was admitted, and developed the outsider’s love of an elite place that accepts him in its fold, combined with such a person’s keen sensitivities to the slights and prejudices that come along with breaking in. His life’s work has been to make the place more welcoming to “outsiders,” including making it much more racially diverse. For that, he has been hauled into court and called a racist. Let that be another kind of lesson.

But let the larger lesson be this: The entire, time-honored way of doing admissions at Harvard and its peer institutions is unsustainable. What could be more elitist—more paternalistic—than a black-box process from which life-changing, final decisions are rendered based on a system that more or less comes down to: Just trust us? How can a process meant to democratize an institution still valorize the children of wealth and privilege? If the system is broadly understood to make right its manifold past failings regarding race and privilege, how can it justify admitting Asian Americans at a lower rate than any other cohort? The institution’s explanation for the preference it gives to legacies and the children of the unaffiliated wealthy is that their generous parents fund the great and good work of the college, but the Harvard endowment is valued at over $37 billion. How much money does it need?  And how long will minority students be willing to accept that their place at the college is underwritten by the noblesse oblige of the richer, whiter ones?

Soon enough, Harvard will need to adopt some kind of rational, democratic, and fully transparent admissions process in which decisions—though likely heartbreaking—will make sense to all who apply. It will need to close its side entrance for the rich and put teeth to its promises not to use racial quotas or “balancing” when shaping the class. At that point—for better and worse—the college will more fully resemble the kind of flagship public university that it is (however unwittingly) struggling to become.

* This article originally misidentified the town where Archbishop Williams High School is located.