Harvard: Stop Pretending!

As the lawsuit by Asian-American students against Harvard proceeds, our friend David Lebedoff–one of whose degrees is from Harvard, if I remember correctly–weighs in, with Harvard’s motto, Veritas, as his polar star:

Karl Marx, who today’s undergraduates think was that curly-headed guy honking at Groucho, proclaimed in his own turbulent time that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Well, he had to get something right. But who would have thought it would be college
admissions?

In the ongoing drama of who gets admitted where, both the ominous First Act and, after an intermission of nearly a century, the ridiculous Second, are set at Harvard, which throughout the entire performance remains unchanged.

The Second Act is much in the news lately. It concerns a lawsuit brought on behalf of Asian-American students whose complaint is that Harvard limits their admission because of their race. There is evidence to support that claim.

As every parent knows, at least those whose dining room tables have creaked under the weight of college admission documents, Ivy is hard to climb. The many steps to the open door of a very superior college are said to be ascending gradations of merit.

This pathetic fallacy is sworn to by the winners of the game. Others are not so sure. The ability to score a goal or fund a hall can seem like thumbs on the scale. Still, even the sceptics concede that if “merit” means test scores it counts a great deal. SATs and grades must be stratospheric even to consider applying. There’s scarcely a B on the more hopeful transcripts. Given so high a minimal standard, it’s amazing that multitudes still apply. Though each seems perfect to someone, not all of them get in. There are, after all, only so many seats at the table.

The problem is with who’s left standing. They are a very large group. Parents have been known to complain. The deans are ready for them: yes, her scores were great, but other people’s scores were even better.

But what if they weren’t? We have a system of college admission that proclaims—shouts—that it is based almost wholly on merit. Yes, it is admitted, there are legacies and athletes and diversity as well, but those who benefit from those categories must also have met very high standards of measured academic ability. Their threshold is also pretty daunting. At our most prestigious schools, this is often true.

And Harvard is at the very least one of our top schools. So what is that lawsuit all about?

It’s about this: Asian students with super high SAT scores, and dazzling grades, and community service that exceeds Gandhi’s, and sports stardom, and homework that gets patented, and everything else that’s supposed to count don’t gain admission when others of less attainment do.

So how does Harvard explain this? By saying that actually there’s another standard that has to be met: fitting in. And, sorry, but many Asian-Americans just don’t make that grade. Of course, it’s all pretty subjective. In fact, it’s hard to define exactly. It’s kind of like they’re too studious, despite those decathlon medals. You might even say they’re too much like each other. You might say that, but you don’t. You just say that the admissions committee has something like a personality profile, and some personalities don’t fit in.

And at this point, lighting strikes. Everything is illuminated. And Marx was right; in the Harvard admissions controversy lightning has struck twice.

The first time was in 1922. Back then it was not Asians, but Jews. The wave of immigration from Eastern Europe had recently swashed our shores and its offspring, tempest tossed, were beginning to apply to Harvard.

This was not all right with many at Harvard. Some of the applicants did not remind them of themselves, but rather of each other. Their qualities, other than diligence, seemed the opposite of those attributed to Asians today, but in both cases they just didn’t seem to fit in.

The problem, then and now, was that there was an announced standard of admission—academic ability—and the rejected applicants had met it.

The standard was called merit, and it supposedly could be discerned by test scores. In the days when not many people took tests, or had less than perfect grades at Groton, the standard of merit could still be proclaimed because the applicants looked like they belonged at Harvard, and anyway, there was room for them. But by 1922, Harvard was faced with the choice of admitting those whom it did not feel belonged.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who had been President of Harvard since 1909, was considering imposing a quota that would limit Jewish students to fifteen per cent of the Harvard student body. There was considerable support for this proposal, but in the end it did not come to pass.

One reason the quota was not enacted was that an alumnus of Harvard wrote a strong letter in opposition to it. He did so voluntarily, and sent his letter to the chairman of the Committee of the Faculties, Professor Charles Hall Grandgent, on November 14, 1922.

The letter writer was Judge Learned Hand. (Yes, that was his name, the Lord apparently
dabbling in nomenclature. Just look at Professor Grandgent.) Hand was then a federal judge and eventually became the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of appeals for the Second Circuit. He is perhaps the most respected American jurist never to serve on the Supreme Court.

This is the letter that he wrote:

New York
November 14, 1922

Charles H. Grandgent, Esq.
Harvard College
Cambridge, Mass.
Dear Sir:

I have understood that your committee welcomes the opinion of alumni on the question of limiting the numbers of Jewish undergraduates. This is my excuse for writing you. The difficulties are no doubt real in a sense that a graduate of thirty years ago would find it hard to realize. I have been told that the college now contains large numbers of Jews, insensitive, aggressive and ill-conditioned, whose presence causes much hostility among the Christians. I shall assume this to be true, and that their increase, to say nothing of their present numbers, will be likely to drive away many students of the kind to which we have been accustomed.

Notwithstanding, I cannot agree that a limitation based upon race will in the end work out any good purpose. If the Jew does not mix well with the Christian, it is no answer to segregate him. Most of those qualities, which the Christian dislikes in him are, I believe, the direct result of that very policy in the past. Both Christian and Jew are here; they must in some way learn to live on tolerable terms, and disabilities have never proved tolerable. It seems hardly necessary to argue that they intensify on both sides the very feelings which they are designed to relieve on one. If after acquaintance the two races are irretrievably alien, which I believe unproven, we are, it is true, in a bad case, but even so not as bad as if we separate them on race lines. Along that path lie only bitterness and distraction.

But the proposal is not segregation or exclusion but to limit the number of Jews. That, however, is if anything worse. Those who are in fact shut out are of course segregated; those who are let in are effectively marked as racially undesirable. Intercourse with them is with social inferiors; there can be no other conceivable explanation for the limitation. The results of that will be deplorable to both sides.

. . .

If anyone could devise an honest test for character, perhaps it would serve well. I doubt its feasibility except to detect formal and obvious delinquencies. Short of it, it seems to me that students can only be chosen by tests of scholarship, unsatisfactory as those no doubt are. A raw, ill-bred and barbarous student will be offensive; he will in the end feel it, perhaps he will improve. At least one may hope for it. A sensitive, well-nurtured student will dislike him; if he has no humanity in him, it will rest there; if he has any, he will see something more. At least let him learn decent toleration, and if he will not, we should not fear to lose him. I cannot feel that college should be a retreat from what we must learn somehow to live with.

After all, the Jews who can qualify among the increasingly limited numbers that get in at all, must excel in scholarly tests. If there are better ways of testing scholarship, let us by all means have them, but whatever they are, success in them is success in the chief aim of a college, an interest in, and aptitude for, learning. The rest is secondary, and so far as there are any who will be turned away because they find themselves in too great a company of the uncouth, their prime purpose is not scholarship. Perhaps it is here that the real difference lies between those who would limit and those who would not. A college may gather together men of a common tradition, or it may put its faith in learning. If so, it will I suppose take its chance that in learning lies the best hope, and that a company of scholars will prove better than any other company. Our tests do not indeed go far to produce such a company but they are all we have.

Sincerely yours,

Learned Hand

There are three things to note about this letter.

(1) It would be unacceptable today. Hand’s acceptance of the proposition that Jewish students at Harvard were “insensitive, aggressive and ill-conditioned” was probably sarcastic, and clearly means “even if it were true,” in order to set up the eloquent rebuttal which follows.

(2) It worked. No Jewish quota was imposed.

(3) Hand was right—if the proclaimed goal is scholastic merit, and the testing for such results in students who may have been otherwise flawed, then either the tests must be improved or the college should state that scholastic merit, essential as it may be, is not the only quality that will be appraised for admission, and any other qualities to be weighed in the admissions process should be publicly announced by the school so that applicants will at least have been warned in advance what standards will be applied.

This third point is the correct response to Harvard’s current policy of admitting Asian-American students. Even if Harvard can admit whomever it wants, it should be open about the reasons for doing so.

Harvard is certainly committed to diversity, racial if not political. It claims that twenty-three percent of its incoming freshmen are Asian-American. That is more than four times the percentage of Asian Americans in the general population (though that percentage is growing). It may be supposed that the number of Asian Americans admitted would be even higher if Harvard’s “personality test” were not applied.

Diversity in admissions is desirable, but it is a zero-sum game. Every percentage gain for one group creates an exclusion for another. Perhaps Harvard has calculated that if it admits Asian-Americans on academic testing alone, that other groups may not be represented at Harvard in a way that reflect the full diversity of our nation.

If so, this is a reasonable argument. But it is not the argument that Harvard is making. If our nation’s oldest university wants a student body of high scholastic ability and also ethnically representative of the American population today, it can achieve that goal. But it should be honest in stating its purpose.

If it is not being honest in this controversy, it is only because being so would create even
greater controversy. It would mean the imposition of announced racial and religious quotas. It would mean that some groups in our population (certainly Asian-Americans) would lose representation at Harvard, and others would gain. Admitting Asians, African-Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Hispanics, WASPs and so on in direct reflection of their percentage of our continuously changing population would be a dubious idea.

But so is dishonesty. The quest for diversity is honorable, but the details of its implementation must be acknowledged. Otherwise, the academic merit standard should be exclusively applied.

If that results in “too many” Asians to permit inclusion of other groups whose test scores may be slightly lower, then Harvard should say so. If test scores alone are employed, the value of those tests should be carefully scrutinized. If the sea of super-high test scores is vast enough to permit demographic balance to be considered, just say that. If academic testing is not perfectly correlated to general intelligence or lifetime achievement, would saying so be so awful? It’s widely suspected anyway.

Just no more Let’s Pretend. Harvard’s motto is Veritas. For God’s sake tell the truth. Don’t say that Asian-Americans fail a personality test when what you really mean is that Asian-Americans are displacing other groups.

And if we stay with the traditional academic criteria, and one group ends up totaling eighty-five percent of the student body, what then?

Then, an honest Admissions Committee might disclose that fact and deal with it publicly. There’s always a sensible answer, so long as we all tell the truth.

Veritas. It’s still a great motto.

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