Diversity Dilemmas

The Office of Admissions says it has reversed the embarrassing mistakes of the past. Yet the politics of "diversity" bring their own problems.

W. E. B. Du Bois, Class of 1890, once said he realized "all the irony" whenever he sang "Fair Harvard." Future founder of the NAACP, Du Bois was also the only black undergraduate in his class.

"I was in Harvard, but not of it," Du Bois reflected in 1960. Excluded from residence, extra-curricular activities and friendships with other white students, his mixed sentiments foretold Harvard's often-ambiguous relationship with what Du Bois would famously term "the problem of the 20th century"--race.

Although the College first opened its doors to African-American, Jewish and other minority students long before other Ivy League colleges, the embarrassment of race-based prejudices, both explicit and latent, forced the Office of Admissions to play catch-up in the 1970s along with the rest of America's predominantly white institutions.

The face of Harvard at the turn of the 21st century looks vastly different from the one that stigmatized Du Bois.

Today, some one-third of admitted classes define themselves as members of ethnic minority groups.

But while Harvard's admissions brochures of the past two decades have chanted the mantra of the University's "rich diversity," its new take on selectivity brings with it new dilemmas that 8 Garden St. continues to battle.

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK

Historians today celebrate turn-of-the-century President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, as a diversity innovator for his times, expanding the geographic and economic reaches of the Harvard student body.

However, his successor, President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, who replaced Eliot in 1909, led the movement for racially restrictive admissions at Harvard, supported by a majority of the alumni. Fearing that American political and social institutions could not survive in a heterogeneous society, Lowell attempted to enact a limit to the "proportion of Jews at the College," but was later rejected by the Overseers.

"We have not thought it possible to compel men of different races to reside together," Lowell wrote in defense of a similarly reasoned proposal to prevent black students from living in Harvard Yard, also later overturned.

"One will do a good deal of cringing at that history," says William R. Fitzsimmons '67, dean of admissions for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

"Lowell's conduct...is definitely something we should be ashamed of and has limited for a long time appreciation of his other accomplishments," says outgoing Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, one of the College's very first African-American administrators.

"When I came to Harvard in '58, what [made an impression] for me about social life was how anti-Semitic it was," Epps says.

THE BLAME GAME

During the placid 1950s, while GI Bill benefits spurred an increasingly diversified applicant pool, racial inequality was a problem to be seen, but not heard.

Recommended Articles