As Harvard faces admissions trial, time for academic world to reform

As Harvard faces admissions trial, time for academic world to reform
© Getty Images

The grandchildren of Ellis Islanders have become alumni, their children legacy admissions. While the faces and surnames of the “haves” have changed, race, ethnicity, and privilege are still with us. Indeed, their proper role in the college admissions process is being litigated in federal court. Specifically, Harvard University is the defendant and its affirmative action policies are on trial.

Apparently, in the name of diversity, Harvard has effectively imposed an “Asian Tax”. For all intents and purposes, Asian-Americans must score 140 points higher than white students, 270 points more than Latino students, and 450 points greater than African-American students before they may earn a coveted acceptance letter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Does this sound fair? Not exactly; is it legal? That’s up to the courts, and in a matter of months, if not weeks, we should have answer.

But in the meantime, it is most certainly a problem, one that America’s elite universities probably wish were swept under the rug and kept under seal, and for a while they did. But not any longer.

In attempt to justify Harvard’s admissions practices, William Fitzsimmons, the school’s dean of admissions, acknowledged under oath that Harvard had used race, in part, as a proxy for economic advantage. Fitzsimmons testified: “It really comes down to the economic disadvantage associated ... with both of those ethnic groups.”

Except at most elite schools, race and economic disadvantage are not identical. According to David Leonhardt of The New York Times, “low-income students, controlling for race, receive either no preference or a modest one.” In other words, affirmative action is now another upper-middle class benefit, albeit one reserved for non-Asian minorities.

And make no mistake, it’s not just about merit or race. Rather, it is also about maintaining the patina of omnipotence and the aura of desirability. In a word, “cool” still counts.

As Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School, recently wrote in the New Yorker: “Much of the evidence at trial may not create a good look for Harvard … It is rather hard to imagine Harvard losing a case of such importance to its brand as social equalizer”.

The HLS professor then concludes her walk on the figurative tightrope by saying: “win or lose, Harvard’s Asian problem, recalling the experience of Jews, will be a piece of the social history of an American minority group on its way to eventual, if not always enthusiastic, acceptance.”

“Look”, “brand”, “Asian problem” “piece of social history”? Dink Stover and Madison Avenue are indeed alive.

Time passes. The stereotypical WASP of Owen Johnson’s 1912 Yale novel is just keeping different company. Regardless, there is something off-putting about the “meritocratic” elite smugly defending social calcification and stratification in the name of the greater good when they remain the game’s primary arbiters and beneficiaries, the Ivy League as a family business.

Item, legacies at Harvard are admitted at a rate five-times greater than non-legacies, according to court filings and the Harvard Crimson. Item, Charlie Kushner bought America’s First Princeling a slot at Harvard for a mere $2.5 million.

And to be clear, the Kushners had no prior ties to the university, and Frisch, the Jewish Day School Jared attended, were a tad ticked: “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it.”

Not unexpectedly, Harvard has a different take on things. As Fitzsimmons the admissions director saw it, lower standards for the offspring of the deep-pocketed willing to share their largesse was “important for the long-term strength of the institution.”

Perhaps the reputation of affirmative action would not be so tarnished if had more faithfully aligned with ameliorating economic disadvantage, a course of action once suggested by candidate Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPoll: Majority of Dem voters happy with their choices among 2020 contenders No presidential candidate can unite the country Trump says he disagrees with 'send her back' chant MORE during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.

Back then, Obama opined that even as race was considered in admissions, “it can only be in the context of looking at the whole situation of the young person. So if they look at my child and they say, you know, Malia and Sasha, they've had a pretty good deal, then that shouldn’t be factored in.”

But the former president, didn’t end there. “On the other hand, if there’s a young white person who has been working hard, struggling, and has overcome great odds, that’s something that should be taken into account.”

Obama could have enlisted his powers of moral suasion and his sway over the education bureaucracy to push for income-based affirmative action. Unfortunately, he didn’t. With race-based affirmative action under fire, now may be the time for the academic world to act.

Lloyd Green was the opposition research counsel to the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988 and later served in the U.S. Department of Justice. He is now the managing member of research and analytics firm Ospreylytics.