Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Harvard Admissions

Trump has made Harvard and race-conscious college admissions a target.  

But first, a disclaimer:

I was admitted to Harvard in 1967 and graduated in 1971, and I have some observations but I am not a spokesperson for anyone but myself.  I am currently the chair of the local committee that interviews Southern Oregon applicants to Harvard--about a dozen applicants a year. Every single student I have interviewed for Harvard admission had the ability to thrive at Harvard, demonstrated by grades, interests, and test scores. Every one was super intelligent, but there were only so many spaces, and nearly all were rejected. It is a matter of numbers. I have impressions, observations, and guesses, which I am sharing. My impressions might be wrong.

I believe Harvard's goal is to provide a great learning environment for the next generation of world leaders.  

Harvard values diversity as an essential element of their mission. They have the institutional constraint of having faculty members in dozens of departments who want a variety of admittees with the diverse interests that may lead them to those various disciplines. Harvard has athletic teams it needs to fill. Harvard wants to be an international center of learning so some percentage of the students (about 12%) are foreign. Some "legacy" students--the sons and daughters of alumni--are admitted.
Benazir Bhutto

Some applicants have advantage built in. When I was an undergraduate, Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the Pakistani Prime Minister, was a fellow student. She was the heir to a political dynasty, and it turned out that she herself became Prime Minister thirty years later. Harvard wants to admit people like her, people tracked toward leadership. Another student, at the Business School, was George W. Bush. In adult life, his lack of intellectual curiosity was widely noted, so it raises the question on how he got admitted to Yale and Harvard. His father--George H. W. Bush--was then a UN Ambassador and head of the CIA and would later become president, and his grandfather was a US Senator. Young George W. Bush may not have had top level smarts, but he had a head start in life, and Yale and Harvard noted that.

Different kinds of people, with different ethnic backgrounds and interests, will inevitably take leadership roles in America and the world. Somebody, of no particular ethnic background, now in his or her teens will turn out to be a Nobel prize winner in Physics. Somebody will turn out to write the novels or screenplays that prove great. Somebody in America--somebody almost certainly black--will turn out to be a leading political voice for the generation of black Americans. Somebody in Ameirca--somebody almost certainly Jewish--will do great scholarship on Jewish thought or lead the world's Jewish organizations. Journalists covering Latino organizations and almost certainly the future leaders of those organizations will themselves have Latino roots. 

And so on. Different people with different interests, ethnicities, and backgrounds will fill the thousands of leadership roles in the variety of avenues of life. Harvard wants to be the place that educates people with the talent and intelligence to take those positions. 

There is an idea out there that college admissions should be race-blind, and that currently Asians are disadvantaged.  Harvard is being sued over it. (When I was an undergraduate it was Jews.) It is absolutely true that Asians are now discriminated against, in one sense. Based on grades and standardized test scores. applicants with an ethnic background of East Asia or South Asia had test scores higher than white and black Christians, but were rejected, while Christian white and black students with similar grades were accepted. That seems like discrimination. The problem is that Harvard has a surfeit of very, very good Asian super smart test takers, and Harvard wants representation of additional categories of potential leadership and excellence.

[Another note. I used to believe in standardized tests: Back in my youth I tested well on them, so I thought they were important. I was a Christian farm kid with a melon patch, but with NY Jewish kid test scores, so maybe I was considered "diversity." I don't know. Now I am very skeptical of those tests. They measure something but not the most important things.]

If the Trump administration gets what it thinks it wants--objective, non race-conscious admissions to selective colleges--Trump and his political base will quickly be disappointed. 

They will be rejected. Harvard admits 2,037 out of the 39,500 people who apply. Almost 95% of applicants are rejected.

                            Click: Statistics
White Christian Americans, who think they are disadvantaged by affirmative action, are actually advantaged by it. Some will think it is high time white Christians feel the sting of disappointment--after all, if the Asian kid scores higher than the white kid, the Asian kid should get in.  

The result if actually put into place would exacerbate racial resentment felt by white America, especially white working class American men, because admissions would narrow-cast to two groups. Advantaged would be the children of white professional parents--rich kids with every advantage in tutoring, summer enrichment experiences, foreign travel, parents in high political office or positions in business, law, or academics. These are kids familiar with international airports, kids who are comfortable in fine dining restaurants, kids comfortable talking with high status adults.  After all, they have been doing that all their lives.

The other is the children of striving first and second generation immigrants, especially from Asia, plus American Jews. Children of tiger moms.

One measure
Based on supposedly objective criteria, Harvard would be loaded up with ambitious and very well behaved students--skewing heavily female--who for reasons of personality and situation showed dogged self-discipline and desire to please parental and school authority--ambitious, very smart, obeyers, who read and master the assigned texts. Not rebels. 

Supposedly objective criteria for admission would solidify and perpetuate the establishment status quo and would further estrange the "elites" from "the people."  it would make Asians and Jews an even greater target of resentment. Ethnic minority elites are cultural powder kegs.

"Merit" is an ambiguous thing.  Intelligence is part of it. But in my own class at Harvard two classmates come to mind. Not Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, nor Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's president, each of whom were creative but worked within institutions. I am thinking of Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples, who revolutionized the office supply business, and Jim Koch, founder of Sam Adams Beer, who revolutionized the craft beer industry. I have no idea what kind of SAT scores Stemberg and Koch had, but I do know they had creativity and drive--and the ability to re-think an industry.

It is hard to test for that in a multiple choice test.
Click: Time Magazine and Tiger parenting backlash

Race or ethnicity may not matter in physics, but it matters a great deal in politics, government, art, literature, and business. The next generation of black leadership, or Latino leadership, will likely come from people who are black and Latino. Harvard wants slots for them. 

The next screenwriters will be off the charts in creativity, not solving calculus problems, so Harvard wants slots for them, too. Men's groups will likely be led by men, and women's by women. There are different forms of merit.

America is fortunate. There are lots and lots of energetic, talented, highly intelligent young people--too many for Harvard to admit all of. So they pick and choose from a diverse group of people hoping in a hit and miss way to admit people who will be leaders in a variety of fields.

Diversity at Harvard lets it fulfill its mission.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Trump administration, and its base, wishes that Harvard, and all it stands for, would choke on its internal contradictions and die. An absurdist prelude to this would only enhance the spectacle. The Right sends its kids elsewhere, anyway: Bob Jones, Rice, etc.