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.
Read: Harvard’s impossible personality test
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?