Harvard May Still Lie About Race After ๐˜š๐˜ต๐˜ถ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ต๐˜ด ๐˜ง๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ ๐˜๐˜ข๐˜ช๐˜ณ ๐˜ˆ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฎ๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ด๐˜ช๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ด

By Martin ๐˜”๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ต๐˜บ๐˜Ž Gottesfeld

Jun 30, 2023

โ€œFool me onceโ€ฆโ€ the clichรฉ goes.

Harvard has a long history of both discrimination and insincere reforms. Its past record illuminates its possible future.

For example, Harvardโ€™s systematic use of low โ€œpersonalityโ€ scores for Asian applicants, now-famously litigated in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, was itself a replay. A century ago Harvard sought to limit its number of Jewish students, but it encountered social pressure. Rather than relent, Harvard resorted to disingenuous โ€œcharacterโ€ assessments to keep its Jewish students under a quota. Sound familiar?

Thanks to an increase in immigration early in the [twentieth] century, the nation’s Jewish population ballooned, especially in the Northeast. Smart and upwardly mobile, Jewish students sought places at elite colleges. In 1900, 7% of students at Ivy League schools were Jewish. By 1922, that figure had jumped to 21.5%.

Two years later, Harvard’s Jewish population was 25%.

Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president, suddenly had a “Jewish problem.” He feared the presence of too many Jewish students would cause wealthy Protestant families to choose other colleges over Harvard.

He wasn’t alone. Following a Harvard-Yale game, an alumnus wrote Lowell to complain. “To find that one’s university had become so Hebrewized,” he wrote, “was a fearful shock.” Another graduate asked, “Are the Overseers so lacking in genius that they can’t devise a way to bring Harvard back to the position it always held as a ‘white man’s’ college?”

Lowell did, in fact, devise such a way. He sought to cap Jewish enrollment at 15%. Beginning in 1922, applicants had to answer questions about “race and color” and “religious preference.” A new Harvard committee began classifying students into categoriesโ€”J1, J2, and J3โ€”based on the likelihood a student was Jewish, with J1 being conclusive.

When Lowell’s strict quota plan met faculty opposition, he instead pursued an admissions process that abandoned selection based on pure merit in favor of one based on “character.” The chair of Harvard’s admissions committee agreed that “such a discrimination would inevitably eliminate most of the Jewish element which is making trouble.”

Applicants were then interviewed and judged based on character and fitness. Harvard also required photographs as part of the application packet. And the university instituted legacy preferences to provide advantages to children of alumni.

It worked. The percentage of Jewish students entering Harvard dropped from 27% in 1925 to 15% the following year and remained unchanged for two decades.

See Drozdowski, Mark J., The Historical Parallel Between Asian American and Jewish Students, Best Colleges (July 18, 2022) (emphasis added), available at https://www.bestcolleges.com/news/analysis/2021/08/09/historical-parallel-between-asian-american-and-jewish-students/ (last visited June 30, 2023).

Before the Jews, Harvard discriminated against African-Americans and made an at-best half-hearted go at reform:

The most prominent fact[…] about Harvard and its relationship with black Americans prior to the Civil War, is that, by and large, the university firmly shut its doors to African Americans. For a brief moment in 1850, it seemed that that tradition would change. In that year, the Harvard Medical School admitted three black students: Daniel Laing, Jr., Isaac H. Snowden, and Martin R. Delany. Yet this break with tradition was short-lived. The Medical School administration expelled the blacks at the end of their first session of classes because of pressure exerted by white students opposed to the blacks’ presence. Explaining the Medical School’s action, Dean Oliver Wendell Holmes (the father of Justice Holmes) maintained that “the intermixing of the white and black races in their lecture rooms is distasteful to a large portion of the class and injurious to the interests of the school.”

Setting aside the Medical School’s brief experiment, Harvard University shut its doors to African Americans throughout the first 229 years of its existence [(from 1636โ€“1865)].

See Kennedy, Randall, Introduction to Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience At Harvard and Radcliffe, New York University Press (1993), available at https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=33kVCgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR13&dq=blacks+at+harvard&ots=c18g_yM-KB&sig=cqcfavYO1vbjctowR4FHsYKR6Vo#v=onepage&q=blacks%20at%20harvard&f=false (last visited June 30, 2023).

So what will Harvard do now? Read the headlines, and, for example, CBS News heralds โ€œโ€˜A whole new worldโ€™โ€ for college admissions. CNBC shouts in large print: โ€œSupreme Court rejects affirmative action at colleges as unconstitutionalโ€. But one should read the courtโ€™s actual decision and consider Harvardโ€™s past before one joins the funeral choir for race in college admissions.

Two-time Harvard graduate John Roberts, one of Harvardโ€™s four Supreme Court justices, left Harvard a subtle loophole in the opinion itself, which states that the following are acceptable considerations in college admissions (emphasis in original): โ€œA benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that studentโ€™s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that studentโ€™s unique ability to contribute to the university.โ€

At first blush the above quotation seems virtuous and self-evident. Of course applicants who truly overcame discrimination and assumed leadership roles should benefit from those achievements. But are they likely to find that their accomplishments meaningfully help them in todayโ€™s faรงade-filled, zero-sum game of college admissions?

Harvard, after all, conjured its โ€œpersonalityโ€ ratings under the banner of equitably and individually evaluating applicants, then denied it systematically gave Asians lower โ€œpersonalityโ€ ratings than other ethnic groups. A hundred years before, Harvard had disingenuously used โ€œcharacterโ€ ratings in pursuit of its demographic goal of limiting Jews. After Students for Fair Admissions, Harvard could institute โ€œfortitudeโ€ ratings, under the claim they are based on individualsโ€™ โ€œovercoming discriminationโ€ and โ€œassuming leadership,โ€ but really use them as the next proxy for racial quotas. Will Harvard, an undeniably smart institution, miss this option emanating from the chief justiceโ€™s opinion? Will Harvard forego it?

Subjective, non-academic metrics have always been widely abused. While Students for Fair Admissions made its way to the Supreme Court, a college-admissions scandal called Varsity Blues revealed influential coaches and other college employees systematically soliciting bribes from affluent parents to help get their children into elite schools. And if ChatGPT has reinforced one immutable pedagogical truism, it is that a significant portion of ambitious academics are insufficiently concerned by dishonesty to eschew a competitive advantage. With a wink and a nod from an admissions officer looking to continue racial quotas, will those who truly overcame and assumed leadership roles be drowned-out by the exaggerated or false claims of those who did not?

Elizabeth Warren spoke at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Autumn 2015 (fair use). By Savannah I. Whaley

The past may truly be prologue.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *