Reporter's Notebook

How Inclusive Can Elite Institutions Really Get?
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Readers and staffers explore the tension between selectivity and inclusivity, sparked by Harvard’s sanctions against same-gender groups. To join the debate, drop us a note:

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A reader who graduated from Harvard last year, Eric, responds to Li’s latest note:

Your reader, Ethan, jokingly mentions that “will Harvard soon be doing away with its admissions process and allowing entrance by lottery? Of course not.” In fact, last month, such a scenario could have easily begun to come to pass.

In the spirit of disruption that pervades this year, a slate of outsider candidates calling for “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” successfully petitioned for inclusion on the ballot for election to the Board of Overseers, one of two governing boards of Harvard. (Unusually, Overseers are elected by the alumni, allowing such a scenario to be mechanistically possible.)

Their campaign platform, in brief, was two-fold: redirect the university endowment to eliminate undergraduate tuition, and increase “transparency” in undergraduate admissions. As detailed in a very thorough article in Harvard Magazine, one of the petition candidates, Ron Unz, has explicitly proposed using a lottery to select the vast majority of the undergraduate class.

The reasoning behind that proposal from Unz—a former businessman and former publisher of The American Conservative—is complex and thought-provoking. You don’t usually hear a business conservative proposing free college tuition at a private university, but Unz is pushing for it based on a conservative belief in meritocracy and an opposition to affirmative action. The lottery part of his admissions scheme is also meant to prevent the deliberate admission of students based on race or ethnicity, a process at Harvard that is now, according to Unz’s research, under-admitting Asian Americans and over-admitting Jewish students relative to merit. Read the bottom of this note for a fuller view of his research and reasoning, but here’s the gist of what Unz is proposing, excerpted from the Harvard Magazine piece:

His solution is “two rings” of admissions. For an entering Harvard College class, the inner ring, of perhaps 300 academic and intellectual stars, would be carefully selected on purely objective academic and intellectual meritocratic criteria (“representing just the top 2 percent of America’s [National Merit Scholar] semifinalists”) from among the most promising candidates. Everyone else, the outer ring in each class (1,300 undergraduates per year), could be selected randomly—the proverbial flip of the coin—from among all the applicants who seem able to handle rigorous undergraduate studies.

A few more readers join the discussion I started with my piece on Harvard’s sanctions against single-gender groups and then continued with my follow-up note on the hypocrisy of singling out all-male final clubs. Here’s Sasha via hello@:

The issue I have with Harvard’s actions are manifold, but I think they’ve jumbled up a series of issues into one. First, there is the notion of whether single-sex organizations have a place in the modern school (I believe they do). Second, there is the issue of sexual assault on campus: I believe the banning of single-sex organizations will have a negligible effect one way or the other, if at all, and I believe there are more effective and equitable ways to combat sexual assault.

Third, there is the issue of freedom of association, and the precedents this establishes at Harvard and the educational world at large. I for one do not want to teach our future leaders of America that values such as freedom of association and freedom of speech, which create the vibrant and resilient culture we live in today, are to be cast aside in the interest of some McCarthy-esque “club test.”

Finally, there is a notion that Harvard wants to present itself “inclusive not exclusive.”

Upon reading some of the comments and responses to the piece I published yesterday on Harvard’s recent sanctions against single-gender social groups, I’ve thought more about the nature of this policy and the reason it needs to apply unilaterally across these organizations. As one reader named Kevin notes:

While I can’t speak specifically for Harvard, the Black fraternities at my Alma-mater had non-black members. The majority of the membership tended to be black but they didn’t discriminate as long as you genuinely showed interest. Personally, I think that while it may be inequitable to also include all-women groups, it is fair. One can not justifiably defend a double standard while championing fairness.

In the article, I argued that the sanctions were flawed for including groups that haven’t faced the same kinds of critiques as all-male final clubs. Additionally I reasoned that single-gender women’s groups ought to be preserved because of the systems of power in place that spur a need for these safe spaces.

While I still believe that this latter point is an important one, I do think it can ultimately be somewhat hypocritical. Men’s organizations have clung to the importance of tradition and history in defending their continued existence. And I found myself arguing for the preservation of the women’s groups, partly based on similar reasoning—namely an aversion to change—along with a belief that the structure and support of such groups would be threatened by this development. Justifying the presence of women’s groups and not men’s also seems to suggest that men aren’t interested in the same types of community, and that in itself feels deeply unfair. That said, the all-male groups that are responsible for specific “power imbalances,” a toxic culture, and elevated cases of sexual assault, should be explicitly punished and singled out.

As the university has noted when explaining the basis for such sweeping sanctions, gender discrimination doesn’t have a place anywhere at Harvard, in any organization. And this realization, while a tough one to come to, is accompanied by the fact that there are many women’s and men’s support groups on campus that are open to everyone, regardless of gender and other qualifying factors. Similarly, affinity groups for students of different ethnic backgrounds invite diverse membership—and have thrived.

The success and openness of these types of organizations could serve as possible examples for current single-gender social groups as they grapple with figuring out what comes next.

Also, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences with single-gender social groups: