At Trial, Harvard’s Asian Problem and a Preference for White Students from “Sparse Country”

Jeannie Suk Gersen:

Nearly a century ago, Harvard College moved away from admitting students based solely on measures of academic performance. In the nineteen-twenties, the concept of diversity in admissions arose in response to the fear of being overrun by Jewish students, who were considered strong on academic metrics but lacking in qualities of character and personality. As the proportion of Jews threatened to exceed a quarter of each class, Harvard’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, proposed limiting Jews to fifteen per cent of the student body. Other Harvard officials balked at such overt discrimination, believing it to be inconsistent with Harvard’s liberal tradition, and, instead, formulated a new, inclusive “policy of equal opportunity” that would lead to the same outcome as Lowell’s proposal. It introduced the consideration of qualitative factors such as personality and background, including “geographical diversity,” as part of the admissions process. Representing the diversity of the country meant recruiting and admitting more Midwestern and Southern students, who counterbalanced the droves of Jewish applicants from the Northeast. By the class of 1930, as a result of the new plan, Jewish students made up only ten per cent of Harvard’s undergraduates.

That Harvard plan developed into a holistic admissions process, which has, for decades, expanded the notion of diversity beyond geography. The aspiration to assemble a class that is diverse in myriad ways, and the practice of considering many factors alongside academic accomplishment, among them personal qualities and racial background, became influential at many institutions that saw themselves as responsible for socially engineering the American élite. The Supreme Court, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in 1978, hailed the Harvard admissions program as an exemplar of legally permissible affirmative action, in which race is one factor among many taken into consideration in college admissions. According to Harvard’s amicus brief, quoted extensively in Bakke, “the race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor just as geographic origin or a life spent on a farm may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases. A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.”