You don't mess with Harvard admissions.
At least, that's the message the University's people in government relations have been trying to get across to Congress for the past year. And this week they and other lobbyists for academe got results.
Last October, Congress tried to mess. In the lengthy and comprehensive Health Manpower Act of 1976, one little sentence slipped through unnoticed in the frantic late hours just before the act's passage.
That sentence tied a certain kind of federal medical school aid to the stipulation that the schools for two years admit third-year transfer students from foreign medical schools at the direction of the secretary of HEW.
That sentence also included a phrase that amounted to a slap in the face for Harvard and other universities priding themselves on the caliber of their student bodies.
It required that the med schools accept the foreign transfers without regard for any academic qualification, other than the students' successful completion of Part I of the national medical board exams.
Although the act would not have taken effect until next fall, many med schools said they would forego much of their federal money rather than accept this government interference.
But Harvard decided to play it cagey. The front line of defense would be the government relations people in Washington trying to convince Congress to back off. The second line of defense, if lobbying efforts failed, would be some kind of court battle to declare the government's interference unconstitutional.
And the bottom line would call for Harvard to give up almost $1 million in federal aid in exchange for retaining control of its admissions.
The front line held. On Wednesday Congress voted through a measure that calls for medical schools to increase their third-year class sizes next year by 5 per cent, but gives the schools broad leeway in choosing the transfer students who will fill those places,
President Bok and the presidents of Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Yale this week issued a joint sigh of relief, in the form of a joint statement their staffs prepared, praising Congress's "reaffirmation of the basic values that have made American universities strong and independent."