Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were both sued last month for allegedly discriminating against Asian-American students in their undergraduate admissions policies.
The lawsuits, filed by newly formed nonprofit group Students for Fair Admissions, claim Harvard and UNC’s race-based affirmative action policies hurt the admissions chances of Asian-American students. Notably, the lawsuit against Harvard argues that the Ivy League university “is using racial classifications to engage in the same brand of invidious discrimination against Asian Americans that it formerly used to limit the number of Jewish students in its student body.”
University of California, Berkeley sociology professor Jerome Karabel details this discrimination against Jewish students in his acclaimed book “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.” In one chapter, Karabel highlights the controversial actions of Harvard’s president from 1909-1933, A. Lawrence Lowell, who very publically attempted to limit the number of Jewish students admitted to the university.
At one point, Lowell wrote to a Harvard philosophy professor to explain that enrolling a high number of Jewish students would “ruin the college” by causing elite Protestant students to attend other schools, according to Karabel’s book. Harvard would be ruined “not because Jews of bad character have come; but the result follows from the coming in large numbers of Jews of any kind, save those few who mingle readily with the rest of the undergraduate body,” Lowell wrote in the letter.
The only way to prevent this, Lowell argued, was to impose strict quotas and restrictions. Ideally, Lowell wanted to cap Harvard’s Jewish population at 15% of the student body, according to Karabel. The size of the Jewish student body had quickly risen from 7% of freshmen in 1900 to 10% in 1909, 15% in 1915, 21.5% in 1922, and 27.6% in 1925.
Below, Karabel expands on Lowell’s desire to limit Harvard’s Jewish student population, using “a covert attempt to impose a quota” in 1922:
Left to his own devices, the authoritarian Lowell would have been more than willing to impose his own solution to the “Jewish problem.” Indeed, that is precisely what he tried to do when he asked the Committee on Admission to admit as transfers only those “Hebrews … possessed of extraordinary intellectual capacity together with character above criticism” and to impose a higher standard for admission to the freshman class on members of the “Hebrew race.”
The plan was ultimately rejected by the Committee on Admissions — who Karabel writes were “reluctant to publically endorse a policy of discrimination” — but reveals the explicit motivation for changing how Harvard chose its incoming students.
By 1926, Harvard moved away from admissions based strictly on academics to evaluating potential students on a number of qualifiers meant to reveal their “character.” A report released that year by an admissions committee endorsed a limit of 1,000 freshman per class — allowing from a shift in policy, as Harvard could no longer admit every student who achieved a certain academic cutoff.
Here’s how Karabel sums up the new changes approved in 1926, which would effectively allow the Harvard administration to limit its Jewish student population:
The committee decisively rejected an admissions policy based on scholarship alone, stating that “it is neither feasible nor desirable to raise the standards of the College so high that none but brilliant scholars can enter” while stipulating that “the standards ought never to be so high for serious and ambitious students of average intelligence.”
When the faculty formally approved the report eight days later, Lowell was further elated, for they also approved measures making the admissions process even more subjective. In particular, the faculty called on [Committee on Admissions chairman Henry Pennypacker] to interview as many applicants as possible to gather additional information on “character and fitness and the promise of the greatest usefulness in the future as a result of a Harvard education.” Henceforth, declared the faculty, a passport-sized photo would be “required as an essential part of the application for admissions.”
Elite colleges also began to use legacy admissions during this period — giving preference to children of alumni — in order to maintain a predominantly Protestant student body, Karabel explains.
These policies eventually died out in the 1950s, as World War II veterans began to enter college on the GI Bill, bringing with them a more serious outlook to their studies that re-emphasised academic rigour. As David Brooks writes in his 2005 New York Times review of Karabel’s book:
By the 1960’s, a new elite was displacing the Protestant Establishment across American society. And the elite university presidents behaved like “intellectual investment bankers,” in the words of Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of “The Guardians,” a book about Yale. They realised, as Karabel writes, that they would profit in the long run if they dumped “stocks that showed signs of slipping” – the old Protestant bluebloods – and invested “in an array of newer stocks that, while perhaps riskier, promised higher rates of return”: the rising meritocrats.
The SAT scores of incoming freshmen shot up, the old toffs were rejected and eggheads from around the country were admitted. Academic culture changed as well. Meritocratic values, first embodied by the striving Jews from New York public high schools, now dominated. Harvard, Yale and Princeton retained their status atop the American educational system by shifting the constituencies they served.
We’ve reached out to Harvard for any comment about these purportedly discriminatory policies. Here’s the university’s statement about the allegations that it currently discriminates against Asian-American applicants:
In his seminal opinion in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, Justice Powell specially cited to the Harvard College admissions plan in describing a legally sound approach to admissions. Then and now, the College considers each applicant though an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide-range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations. The University’s admissions processes remain fully compliant with all legal requirements and are essential to the pedagogical objectives that underlie Harvard’s educational mission.
For more information on the this controversial shift in admissions policies, you can buy Karabel’s book here >>
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