Can the Ivy League's Big Three live down their history of discrimination?
JEROME KARABEL DID NOT have to dig very far for evidence of discrimination in researching his new book, ''The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton" (Houghton Mifflin), appearing later this month. ''There were so many smoking guns," says the Berkeley sociologist, ''that by the end I couldn't see across the room, there was so much smoke."
Indeed, the competition for the title of most shameful incident is pretty stiff. Would the lowest moment be when a Harvard alumnus, in 1925, sent the college's president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a letter noting his ''utter disgust" at having run into several Jewish students on a recent campus visit? (Lowell responded sympathetically that he ''had foreseen the peril of having too large a number of an alien race and had tried to prevent it.")
Or perhaps the Anecdote Least Likely to Appear in an Admissions Brochure involves the brilliant black student who showed up to all-white Princeton in 1939, and was promptly pulled out of a registration line. As the student, later a New York appeals court judge, recalled, he was taken to the dean of admissions, examined ''like a disgusting specimen under a microscope," and told he should go home.
Other writers-notably Nicholas Lemann, in ''The Big Test: The Secret History of the Meritocracy," and Dan Oren, in ''Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale"- have recently told versions of the story. It begins with the Big Three as lily-white bastions of the Establishment, then continues through the social revolution of the 1960s, when the colleges lifted what were effectively quotas on Jews and public school students, and reached out to blacks. Karabel's twist is that he traces today's opaque admissions system, which puts heavy emphasis on all sorts of nonacademic criteria, to that decisive moment in the 1920s when elite colleges had to figure out what to do with the high-achieving Jews who were lining up at their doors.
''The encounter with the 'Jewish problem' was formative," Karabel says. ''It led to a system that went well beyond the Jews." Today, Karabel says, alumni kids, class presidents, athletes, and, ironically, black and Latino students benefit from the system born in the discriminatory '20s.
But some readers-like Harvard's current dean of admissions-have a few doubts about the parallels Karabel draws.
Until the '20s, the admissions system had taken care of itself: Only the wealthy elite had the academic preparation to carry them into Yale or Princeton. But then came a flood of ambitious public school kids, disproportionately Jewish, from the likes of New York and New Jersey. By the mid-'20s, Harvard had gone beyond 27 percent Jewish enrollment-and was terrified of turning into Columbia, which had hit the 45 percent mark and was scorned by New York's social elite. Yale and Princeton, a few years earlier, had grown alarmed over Jewish enrollments of 13 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
So the colleges reached for nonacademic reasons to reject students. ''Bookishness." Low ''moral character." Lack of ''manly vigor." The very vagueness of these concepts made them usefully flexible. Deploying such ''standards," Harvard drove Jewish enrollment down to about 15 percent, and it continued to restrict the number of Jews through the 1950s.
Wilbur Bender, Harvard's admissions dean from 1952 to 1960, provides Karabel with the most deliciously quotable descriptions of the balancing act that the three colleges faced throughout the 20th century: brains versus what Bender unironically called ''snob appeal." Brains were fine, Bender wrote, but Harvard had to be careful not to be tagged as a place ''full of long-haired aesthetics, pansies and poets and various la-de-da types." To maintain its prestige, it needed to pay close attention to ''the good solid middle from [top prep schools]-the good healthy extrovert...who can pay his own way."
Bender resigned in 1960. And yet, Karabel writes, ''The cause that Bender fought for has remained Harvard's basic admissions policy to this day."
Karabel does not slight the social revolution of the 1960s and early '70s, when the Big Three opened themselves significantly to Jews and African-Americans and admitted women for the first time. Nor does he suggest that there is overt discrimination today-although the current regimes aren't ''very Asian-American friendly," he says.
But colleges continue to weigh subjective and personal factors in a way Karabel says he's not comfortable with. ''It always leaves room for discrimination," he says. And he reads the preference given to children of alumni, especially the richest alumni, as continued deference ''to the prerogatives of wealth and power"-a vestige of the old balancing act.
While outright lies about admissions have ended-all three colleges used to deny that they had Jewish quotas-opacity still reigns. In the early 1990s, Princeton faculty were still clashing with their admissions dean, Fred Hargadon, over why he was rejecting a not-insignificant number of students the admissions office itself had ranked as academic superstars. Statistics, when unearthed, invariably show that the breaks given to athletes and alumni kids are far bigger than the admissions offices let on.
Karabel's overarching thesis may be a little too neat. Lemann, for example, says Karabel underplays the fact that the Establishment elite endorsed standards like ''manly virtue" long before the '20s -and applied those standards to white Protestants, too. ''It's not as if they believed in academic merit, but said, 'We'll pretend we don't, because we want to keep Jews out of Yale,"' says Lemann, dean of Columbia's journalism school. The elite ''meritocracy," he adds, was from the start based on these other, harder-to-define qualities.
''Admission in the 1920s and admissions today are not just different worlds, they are in different universes," says William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions and financial aid.
And Harvard, Fitzsimmons insists, now views the snob factor as the opposite of a plus: Courting talented students of moderate to low income, who may be sensitive to social condescension, has become a top Harvard priority. New financial-aid programs have helped raise the number of freshmen from families making less than $60,000 from 246 to 299 (out of a class of 1,650) this year alone. Though that's still only 18 percent of the entering class.
Karabel's attacks on nonacademic admissions criteria are so thunderous that it comes as a surprise to learn, near the end of ''The Chosen," that he embraces them, or some form of them, too. He would maintain race-based affirmative action and add a very hefty boost to low-income students of all ethnicities who achieve in the face of adversity. He would not eliminate the athletic advantage, but only curtail it. He even says he is ''open to recognizing human qualities other than academics that are relevant to a well-functioning society." He, too, wants to keep admissions an art and not a science-making him a lot more like Wilbur Bender, scourge of ''beatniks" and ''brittle intellectual types"-than perhaps he realizes.
It's easy to lament past discrimination. But here's the uncomfortable question in Cambridge this week. Is it dishonest to revel in Harvard's prestige while dismissing some of the policies that, although now abhorrent, built and nurtured it?
Christopher Shea writes the Critical Faculties column for Ideas. E-mail email@example.com.