President's Words Are Pertinent
We were amazed and delighted to see President Neil L. Rudenstine speak out last week on affirmative action. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently ruled in Hopwood v. Texas that the University of Texas could not consider the race or ethnicity of applicants in its admissions decisions; in response, Rudenstine issued a letter defending affirmative action and saying that "student diversity contributes powerfully and directly to the quality of education in colleges and universities."
In five years, this was the first time we can remember Rudenstine commenting on a current issue of relevance to the University. It almost recalls the days when past president Derek C. Bok wrote open letters and annual reports to the Harvard community on topics such as free speech and the role of the university in the larger world. Certainly, there was Rudenstine's "annual" report, issued earlier this year, which commented on diversity, but that seemed more of a historical review than a comment upon the world in which we live. This letter, while written in the same spirit as the report, is important because it responded to something in the world beyond Harvard. Rudenstine seems finally to have realized his bully pulpit, at least in small measure.
The content of the letter is also admirable. We agree fully with the ideals behind his statement that Harvard "take[s] great care not to view people simply as the sum of their grades and test scores.... We view applicants as individual human beings with a complex set of talents, qualities, interests, backgrounds and experiences." In order for Harvard to continue putting together a class composed not just of valedictorians or students of one race, it must sometimes go beyond the numbers to experiences. Having students of different backgrounds, races and interests at Harvard helps foster an environment where students can learn from each other not only in the classroom but also in discussions about their lives.
As Rudenstine said, considering race and ethnicity does not mean abiding by quotas or placing such criteria at the top of any list. But by failing to consider these factors, Harvard would run the risk of leaving out those groups which have been and still are being discriminated against and are therefore underrepresented, depriving them and others of a diverse college experience.
We encourage President Rudenstine to speak out on more issues of the day and to make sure that newspapers and magazines across the country take note of his stands. Only then can Harvard be the voice in higher education it rightfully should be; only then will Harvard use its station as America's number-one university to its fullest potential.