A recent lawsuit against Harvard College alleges that its admissions procedures covertly discriminate against Asian-American candidates. This lawsuit has national importance because the admission procedures at Harvard are very much like those used at other elite schools. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/us/harvard-trial-college-admissions.html?ref=oembed
Discovery in the case has revealed that there is more than one path to admission to Harvard College. There is the official procedure that looks at a whole raft of factors (including race) in judging candidates in hope of obtaining a class made up of excellent students, many from minority backgrounds.
But another less publicized path gives special weight to whether the applicant is a relative of an alumnus—these applicants are called “legacy” candidates. A third road to acceptance considers the applications of the sons and daughters of large donors to the college. One of these “donor” candidates was Jared Kushner, now famous as the son-in-law of President Trump. In deciding to admit Jared Harvard took into account the fact that his father had recently made a 2.5 million dollar gift to the college And a fourth program is devoted to the admission of “recruited athletes” who are not required to have the same academic qualifications as regular admits.
The shocking news is that almost one-third of the students admitted come from the legacy, donor, or athlete tracks. And since the beneficiaries of these programs are mostly white, these programs in fact operate as “anti-affirmative action” programs since they usurp spots that might otherwise have been awarded to minority students under the normal admissions process. (If you are surprised to find that most of the athletes are white, remember that Harvard sponsors a large array of intercollegiate sports, including golf, ice hockey, rugby, and sailing.)
The current litigation is limited to the narrow issue of whether Harvard’s official procedures discriminate against Asian-Americans. It brings up the truly difficult issue of whether and how Harvard should consider “race” as a factor in its admission procedure.
The plaintiffs argue that the use of “race” inevitably invites bias when applied to individual cases. For instance, plaintiffs have shown that Asian-Americans have routinely been rated lower than whites on various “personal” factors. They suggest omitting “race” completely and relying instead on hard socioeconomic data that would admit more students from less wealthy families. They argue that this procedure actually would yield more minority admissions than the present program.
Harvard rejects these arguments arguing that there is no discrimination against Asian Americans, and pointing out that, while the program proposed by plaintiffs might admit more minorities overall, it would reduce African-American admits from 16 to 10 percent of its entering class.
I do not mean to ignore the very important and very difficult issue of how, if at all, schools should consider race as a factor in admissions and I intend to discuss it in a future post. But before facing such a thorny issue, I think it makes sense that Harvard take some easy steps that would improve its record on minority admissions without any use of race.
I suggest that Harvard eliminate all admission preferences for alumni and donors. Everyone senses that something is very wrong about how elite colleges are choosing their students. The latest story about celebrity parents like Felicity Huffman bribing admission officers is the latest scandal, but what she did is not too different from the actions of large donors like the Kushners, or from those of alumni who make large donations intended to help a relative.
I also suggest that Harvard end its special preferences for recruited athletes; let the athletic teams be made up of students who were chosen on the same academic standards as their classmates.
I realize that neither of these suggestions will be popular with alumni, who naturally like special treatment for their relatives and a football team that can beat Yale. But elite schools’ today are too dependent on government subsidies to be considered “private” in any meaningful sense. They have to be answerable to the public.
That’s why it’s time that Harvard take action to make sure its student body is not chosen by wealth or status. It will only add to Harvard’s prestige if it leads the way forward instead of defending practices that are no longer defensible.