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The elite Ivies once systematically welcomed some (wealthy WASPs) and excluded others (children of Jewish immigrants)

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
By Jerome Karabel
Houghton Mifflin, 711 pp., illustrated, $28

If Franklin Delano Roosevelt applied to Harvard today, would he get in? When he applied at the turn of the previous century, the man destined to be the most famous member of Harvard's class of 1904 was assured admission. Roosevelt had attended Groton, itself established in 1884 for the sole purpose of preparing young men for elite colleges. An active member of Groton's Missionary Society, the young Roosevelt exhibited all the qualities of ''muscular Christianity" that America's Protestant elite had come to admire in British public schools. Roosevelt's academic record at Groton was undistinguished, but in 1900, two decades before formal selective admissions and 26 years before the first Scholastic Aptitude Test, intellectual ability hardly mattered.

But could Roosevelt win a place at the modern Harvard, where the median SAT I score is 1495 out of 1600? He might well be tempted to try, for America would appear still to be in thrall to the kind of select elite that ruled it a century ago.

How this elite has been selected is the subject of ''The Chosen," Jerome Karabel's exhaustive 711-page book. One point is clear throughout: Across the span of the 20th century and the careers of dozens of admissions officers, university presidents, and trustees, admission to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton has never been a matter of intellectual merit alone. Instead, Karabel demonstrates, the three schools have carefully adjusted their admissions policies to remain at the heart of the establishment. Only when that establishment seemed threatened by revolution, or the ''Big Three" were themselves threatened with irrelevance, did Harvard, Yale, and Princeton reach beyond the Whitneys, Biddles, Adamses, and Saltonstalls to seek social justice or recognize and reward unpolished brilliance.

Although these institutions are only three of the more than 3,500 colleges and universities in America, Karabel believes that they so dominate the country's landscape that their admissions policies shape the nation's ruling class. Karabel therefore finds the first breach in the bulwark of the Protestant elite in Harvard President Charles W. Eliot's decision, adopted in 1898, to abolish the Greek requirement that prevented many public school boys from applying to Harvard. In 1905, Karabel notes, Eliot went a step further, replacing Harvard's eccentric admissions exams with a standardized test that was more widely offered. New scholarships brought in a wave of public school graduates -- many the children of East European Jews -- to Harvard Yard, where the rooms were nearly as chilly as the reception the scholarship boys received from wealthy students living on Mount Auburn Street's ''Gold Coast" of luxury apartments.

The flow of freshmen to the Big Three could be carefully controlled, however, by opening new tributaries and cutting others off. After succeeding Eliot as Harvard's president in 1909, Abbott Lawrence Lowell briefly served as national vice president of the Immigration Restriction League; those whom Lowell could not keep out of the United States could certainly be kept out of Harvard. As Karabel astutely notes, Harvard's first genuinely selective admissions process, in full force by 1926, was not designed to improve the intellectual caliber of the student body; if it had been, test scores and transcripts would have sufficed. Instead Harvard established a regimen of individual interviews and letters of recommendation designed to take measure of a young man's character. Behind the scenes admissions officers scrutinized enrollment cards for town of birth, family names, parental occupations, and other information with a single question in mind -- what degree of Jewishness did the student demonstrate? Was he a J1, conclusively Jewish, or perhaps a J2, a student whose file showed a ''preponderance of evidence" of being a ''Hebrew"? If so, the student faced stiffer odds of admissions under Lowell's unofficial 15 percent quota for Jews in each freshman class.

The situation at Yale was little better: Despite Yale's professed mission to educate the nation, The Yale Daily News called for an ''Ellis Island for Yale" to make sure incoming students were of suitable ''character, personality, promise and background." At Princeton, admissions officers mimicked the selection process for the newly founded Rhodes scholarships, where ''scholarship and character" were judged equally. ''Character," Karabel notes, was a vague quality ''thought to be frequently lacking among Jews but present almost congenitally among high-status Protestants."

Under public pressure the Big Three were forced to disguise their prejudices, but each designed its admissions policy to prevent Jews from taking all the spots that intellectual ability alone would have earned them. Harvard and Yale each offered scholarships to students from the South and West, for example, with the evident purpose of educating the nation. But they also hoped that by pursuing ''geographic diversity" in predominantly Protestant areas of the country they could offer merit scholarships for which Jewish boys from Bronx Science would not be eligible. Only some time after the United States had fought to liberate Europe from Nazism did the Big Three begin to dismantle their institutionalized anti-Semitism.

The heroes of Karabel's account are those ''reformers dedicated to changing the system in order to preserve it." Karabel rightly admires James B. Conant, the chemist and entrepreneur who as president of Harvard sought out the ''natural aristocracy of talents and virtue" that Thomas Jefferson had described as deserving support in their studies. Conant, Karabel notes, recognized that America would require a new elite for whom ''character" alone would be insufficient. ''There are many walks of life," Conant noted in 1938, ''where real intellectual capacity is required."

In theory, Yale and Princeton followed Conant's lead. In practice, all three schools, fearful of alienating their wealthy and well-connected alumni, kept admitting a steady flow of legacies. And whatever interest the presidents might have had in distributing merit scholarships, each university's admissions office kept a careful count of the number of legacies and students paying full tuition. As a professor at Yale in the 1950s, I observed that polished prep school students loafed through their freshman year while public school graduates sweated. Karabel notes that studies confirmed what we professors knew firsthand: The public school students were far more motivated than their prep school peers, and as sophomores far more successful.

There is little doubt that the reformers Karabel praises broke down barriers to talent at their own universities, but how important were their efforts in expanding opportunity across America? These three colleges, after all, were unusually bound to tradition and to their privileged constituency at a time when genuine progress in higher education was moving quickly elsewhere.

The three universities Karabel singles out were, for example, unusually hidebound on the question of coeducation. Eliot may have broadened access to Harvard for men, but he rejected the idea of extending the same opportunities to women. In his 1869 inaugural address Eliot said he was acting from prudence and not proceeding from ''crude notions about the innate capacities of women." ''The world," he explained, ''knows next to nothing about the natural mental capacities of the female sex." Apparently the ''mental capacities" of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Catherine the Great were in doubt.

We might think Eliot's beliefs were merely in keeping with his time, but across the Charles River Boston University had already opened all programs to male and female students of all races and creeds. As William Fairfield Warren, BU's first president, wrote at the time: ''Artificially to restrict the benefits of such an institution to one-half of the community, by a discrimination based solely on a birth distinction, is worse than un-American. It is an injury to society as a whole, a loss to the favored class, a wrong to the unfavored." When Stanford University was founded in 1891 it was also dedicated to coeducation from its first day. Full equality for female students at Harvard would wait another 72 years.

Kingman Brewster Jr., president of Yale from 1963 to 1977, also merits Karabel's praise for resisting pressure to admit more legacies and, notably, for offering greater opportunity for African-American students and improving race relations on campus. Under Brewster Yale's vigorous outreach to talented blacks without resorting to quotas became the model for affirmative action across the Ivy League. In 1964, despite vocal opposition from alumni, Brewster insisted that Yale award Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. an honorary degree. Karabel notes that Brewster feared that the racial divide would tear America apart; better to find room for talented blacks than to let resentments simmer until what James Baldwin had warned would be ''the fire next time."

Brewster's impact on Yale and its competitors in the Ivy League was considerable, but the changes to their admissions policies were hardly a tectonic shift in American higher education. Brewster was not setting a precedent by awarding an honorary doctorate to King, who had earned a doctorate nine years earlier from BU, open to African-Americans from its founding in 1839. The gradual erosion of WASP privilege at the Big Three is a very small chapter in the civil rights struggle in higher education; not the whole story, or even a major part of it.

Why does Karabel devote so much attention to the admissions policy at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton unless he actually believes that they still offer an almost exclusive path to membership in the American elite? In fact the three schools, while extraordinary in many respects, long ago lost their controlling grip on the levers of power. More senators have bachelor's degrees from Brigham Young University than from Princeton; the vast majority of senators attended fine universities in their own states. Despite enormous endowments accrued over decades of serving the interests of the wealthy, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are not uniformly excellent in all fields. A high school student interested in history can do very well at Yale, but one interested in philosophy might do better at Rutgers University. Students interested in the life sciences have a wide choice of schools with stronger programs than Harvard's.

All this raises a heretical thought. What if Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, purportedly America's answer to Oxbridge, are in fact more like the nation's other universities than they are different from them? The question, in other words, might not be whether FDR could get into Harvard today, but rather: Would he apply?

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