Trump and Elite Schools: A Harvard Athlete Weighs In

Michael Doolittle
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A week ago I quoted an unnamed “reader in New Haven,” who offered thoughts about “The Future of Elite Schools in the Trump Era.” That occasioned a lot of response, which is still coming in. I quoted some of it in “Trump vs. Harvard and Yale” and “The Future of Elite Schools, Continued.”

This next installment comes from the author of the original message, who is now willing to be identified. He is Michael Doolittle. As he explains, he is a Harvard College alumnus, and he works as a photographer in New Haven. In the message below he talks about the under-publicized but important role of sports in elite-college admissions. As he says an introductory note:

I have set up a website, where readers can go and click on a black button titled "Introduction: Sports in Admissions" if they want more detail about a lot of these themes. You could just say that I am trying a writing project exploring why the US is the only major country in the world that has tied sports so tightly into their colleges and universities and what that says about admission policies.

Now, Doolittle’s response to those who have read and reacted to his original message. By the way, the photos in this post are by him, of scenes at Yale:

I’ve amazed that my ruminations on elite schools in the Trump era have garnered so much interest. I want to start by saying that my comments were broadly about the institutions. In no way am I saying that all students at elite school are entitled jerks. I believe you can be critical of systems, even those you admire, without criticizing every individual in those systems.

My thoughts are grounded by my personal experience and a research project that I’ve been working on for some years.

My name is Michael Doolittle and I have been involved, one way or another, with the Ivy League since 1979, when my parents bought a new school bus yellow Suburban to take my oldest brother Tim to Harvard. I have four brothers and four of us graduated from Harvard.

JF note: By chance I know Michael Doolittle’s parents and once worked closely with his father. Back to his message:

(My twin brother Jon went to Middlebury, and got the best education of us all.) I met my wife Amity at Harvard and she went on to earn her Masters and PhD from Yale. Her father was a Harvard graduate and also received his MBA there. Her uncle graduated from Harvard and was awarded the Harvard Medal for his alumni contributions. My father taught expository writing at Harvard for five years. And my mother earned her Master’s in Education from Harvard.

Amity has been a non-tenured faculty at Yale for nearly 20 years. In addition, New Haven is a small city and I have had numerous interactions with faculty and administrators. For many years, I worked on campus for various Yale entities. Over the years, we’ve hosted numerous events at our house for undergraduate and graduate students alike.

I’ve had a front row seat over many years watching how two of our great universities work.

Michael Doolittle

After graduation I borrowed my dad’s Nikon and learned to use it in the Peruvian and Malaysian rainforests, where I learned to climb into the treetops and helped design and build two canopy walkways. Since then, I’ve been working as a photojournalist for news outlets and have photographed 14 children’s books.


My life has in some ways been a test of elite college admissions policies.

I was accepted only because I was on the legendary rowing coach Harry Parkers recruiting list. My identical twin Jon, who didn’t row, was rejected. Not only were we physically alike, but our GPA’s and test scores were almost exactly the same. Years later, my mother learned from a Dean that this violated Harvard’s twin policy which said that both twins had to be accepted or rejected. Harry told my brother Ted, a rower a year ahead of me at Harvard, “Boy Ted, it sure was hard to get your brother in!”

I began to wonder at the admissions system when I realized that many of my teammates and friends weren’t as good students as Jon. (Jon has gone on to have at least as successful a life as the rest of us.) They also had gone to prep school, but to more prestigious schools like St. Paul’s and Exeter.

Years later, my daughter Eliza’s college admissions process raised even more questions. Her SAT scores were 800 and 780 and she had straight A’s and she was rejected from every elite school that she applied to. I realized that in my time, she would have gotten into all of them. She ended up attending the University of Edinburgh, where the test-based admissions system doesn’t weigh extra-curricular activities.

Just a year or two before, I had learned from an old high school teacher of mine that Harvard had admitted a junior hockey star who played for my high school, which had turned itself into a sports powerhouse that fed players into multiple Division I sports programs. Harvard wanted him to play together with his two older brothers, but if they had waited for him to play in his high school senior year, they would have graduated from Harvard.  

Intrigued, I began to research how admissions have changed over time and think more seriously about these schools as institutions.  I realized that the U.S. is the only major country in the world that has tied sports so tightly into their colleges and universities. In fits and starts, in between other work, I’m trying to turn this into a significant writing project on the athletic preference in U.S. college admissions.


Like many Americans, I've been paying too much attention to politics, in this new Trump reality where time is actually measured in dog years, making one month feel like at least seven.

When I read about the affirmative action case working its way through the courts, it struck me that the very things that make our major universities great—tenured, driven faculty who single-mindedly go about their work; diversity in students and faculty (growing, but too small still); international openness; and a widespread belief in the value of shared knowledge and education—made a perfect target for Trump.

If you've been trained as an intellectual all your life and believe that we should all ground our opinions is reasoned argument, it's likely Trump will make mincemeat of you.

Michael Doolittle.

In a perfect storm, this mismatch could combine with the less attractive characteristics of our most selective schools—a perceived liberal bias; opaque admissions criteria that change over time; sclerotic institutional organizations where each professional school and department has their own bureaucracy; the tenure system itself which limits what Deans and Presidents can do; an inherent contradiction between being non-profit educational organizations, while at the same time having huge endowments, for-profit real-estate holdings, and robust systems to monetize scientific research often funded by taxpayer funds; and growing tension with local areas who complain that those huge real-estate holdings are tax exempt—to make the schools easy targets.

Thanks to Michael Doolittle for kicking off this discussion and for this followup. Again, his site about the role of sports in admission is  More to come.