Worlds Apart: Why Harvard and the South Don't Get Along

The first time C. Jonathan Gattman '03 returned home to Florence, Ala. after enrolling at Harvard, people asked him if he had "started to turn pinko."

His friends wanted to know what the Kremlin on the Charles was really like. "Is it a bunch of rich, preppy kids?" they asked.

Gattman is a rarity in Florence--he is the first student from Wilson High School to attend an Ivy League college. The valedictorian of his class went to Mississippi State.

But he's a rarity at Harvard, too--his conservative Southern background places him in the College's ideological minority.

The gap between Cambridge and Florence demonstrates why the College sees relatively few Southerners.

There are certainly students outside the Ivy-lined Northeast who could get in to prestigious schools such as Harvard. But Gattman and others say that deeply rooted cultural traditions combined with Harvard's reputation for liberalism keep many of these students from heading North for college.

While Gattman traverses a cultural chasm every time he flies home for break, many Southern students aren't willing to make the trip north in the first place.

"There are people around there who are qualified who don't apply because they view it as a really liberal school and not as religious as one they'd like to attend," he says.

Great Expectations

Gattman arrived at Harvard this fall almost certain he would find wealthy, nerdy liberals.

While Harvard was even more liberal than he imagined, he says he was pleasantly surprised to discover his liberal peers' attitude toward his own beliefs.

"It's not oppressively liberal," he says. "It's not force-it-down-your-throat liberal."

Many fellow conservatives agree: Harvard is liberal, but not stifling.

"I don't think conservatives at Harvard are oppressed," says Anne L. Berry '01, former president of the Harvard Republican Club. "I think it's legit for us to say no one at Harvard is really oppressed and no one needs to fight for their rights at Harvard."

But a minority is a minority, Barkley says--conservatives coming to Harvard know should be prepared to face an uphill battle.

Southerners especially must adapt to a different way of life and different societal norms. For some students, the gulf between Northern and Southern life causes culture shock.

"There are times when I think I can't wait to go back to Alabama and get away from this craziness," Barkley says. "And then there are times when you think, 'This makes sense, but we wouldn't do that in the South, would we?'"

Harvard students, too, hold many preconceptions about Southerners.

"People always have conceptions of what people in the South are like," Barkley says.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

No wonder Southerners are underrepresented at Harvard. Take a look at the numbers.

While U.S. Census Bureau projections for 1997 indicate that 31.5 percent of the nation's population lives in the South, only 15.2 percent of Harvard's student body is Southern, according to Harvard News Office statistics.

Students from the Northeast fill the gap left by the shortage of Southerners. While 25.6 percent of the U.S. population resides in the Northeast, 48.1 percent of Harvard's population comes from that region.

Some might say that's not surprising, considering that as recently as 1996, 80 percent of first-years who graduated from high school the previous year went to college in their home states. But it isn't so easy to explain away the gap between the South and Harvard, the most elite school of the vaunted Ivy League.

Distance is a factor, but not the deciding one. While 16 percent of the U.S. population lives in the Pacific states, 14 percent of Harvard's student body calls that region home. That's only a 12.5 percent gap in representation; for the South, the gap is a whopping 51.8 percent.

And California ranks third among Harvard undergraduates' home states. The plane ride from the University to the West Coast is long, but the cultural chasm between Cambridge and the South is even wider. And politics is a hefty part of the reason.

The South is a bastion of conservatism. In both the 1992 and 1996 elections, the Clinton-Gore ticket carried only two Southern states, excluding their home states of Arkansas and Tennessee. But they carried every state in the Northeast both times--and in 1996, the Democrats took Massachusetts with 63 percent of the vote, the highest of any state.

That's not to say that all Southerners are conservative, or that all conservatives are Southern. But many Southern students at Harvard say the difference between the regions is still perceptible.

The political distinctions are mirrored by longstanding cultural traditions--family, history and home. For the most part, the South disapproves of Northerners' fast-paced lifestyles, harsh winter weather and abrupt manner. And in turn, many Northerners stereotype residents of the South, lumping them into one mint julep-sippin', tobacco-spittin', slow-talkin' conservative evangelist.

"There is definitely a culture to the South that involves homecoming games and football and being active in church while you're a student, and I think it is probably reasonable to say that there is a cultural bias to coming up North. Harvard has a reputation for being very liberal and atheist and other sorts of things," says Beth A. Stewart '00, a Georgia conservative and former Undergraduate Council president.

We Are Family

Often, family ties discourage Southern students from going to college in Massachusetts. Many Southerners say they pride themselves on loyalty to family and state. With such deep roots, students instinctively look within the region for educational opportunity.

"[Southern high school graduates are] more likely to go where their parents went or where their sisters or brothers are," says M. Rachael Lovett '03, a native of Owensboro, Ky.

That's especially true when students have legacies at Southern colleges. Justin A. Barkley '02 sometimes gets a reminder of his Southern heritage when he talks to his grandmother.

"She'll say, 'You should have gone to Vanderbilt. That's where your grandfather went,'" says Barkley, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala.

According to Stewart, Southern grandmothers are worried about more than just where ancestors went to school.

"I think every kid from the South here has at least one grandmother who has warned them about the heathens in the North," she says.

Families' warnings directly affect college applications.

Every year, Father David Zettel shepherds about 300 boys at Trinity High School in Louisville, Ky. through the college application process. After 30 years of college advising, he says Southern applicants live as though the Mason-Dixon line still exists.

"The tendency is to think South before you think North, before you think East," Zettel wrote in an e-mail message. "The South connotes a more leisurely, less stressful lifestyle. Southerners are generally perceived as more friendly and welcoming... Even intellectual matters and pursuits...play out in a more relaxed manner in a Southern clime."

Less than 1percent of last year's graduating class at Trinity went to school in the Northeast.

According to Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath-Lewis '71-'73, it's not just a Southern issue: in general, the farther away students live, the harder it is to recruit them.

"It's a law of nature," she says.

Harvard has historically had problems recruiting students not only from the South, but also from the Midwest, she says.

"We've done very well in the South recently," she adds. "But we've had to work very hard at that."

But Southern high schoolers are especially resistant to colleges in other regions, being "more preoccupied with where they're from," Lovett says.

Gattman says his guidance counselor encouraged him to stick close to Alabama in his choice of schools. Even after he got into Harvard, she told him to apply in-state to keep his options open.

"I told her where I was going and she was like, 'Are you sure you're making the right decision?'" Gattman says. "It was such a bizarre thing that it was kind of hard for her to swallow."

McGrath-Lewis says the admission officers are fighting tradition.

"It's not that we're competing against other Ivy League schools," she says.

She points out that the South is known for its excellent, inexpensive public education. Compared to state schools in the South, Harvard's tuition seems astronomical, especially since some Southerners are unwilling to take out loans to attend college.

"I know people in the South who are very distrustful of loans," Lovett says.

That makes state schools much more attractive to some Southern students.

"It's the local winners," McGrath- Lewis says.

Y'all Come Back Now

Coming to Harvard can be tough, but coming home can be tougher. Students from more conservative regions often face questions about their loyalty and values when they return.

Lovett says Southerners will often comment disapprovingly that those who leave think they are "too good to go to school in [their] state."

Furthermore, many of their peers see leaving the South as a sign of an inflated ego or a rejection of their own states, rather than just a desire to expand their horizons, Lovett says.

According to Berry, cultural distance from Harvard isn't exclusively a Southern phenomenon. Her home state of Colorado, she says, isn't enchanted with the Harvard mystique.

People at home, Berry says, think of Harvard as a "snobby, back-East school."

"My teachers discouraged me from it," she says. "A school like Harvard was a waste of money. The University of Colorado was just as good educationally... Most of my family felt that I shouldn't come here. My parents weren't particularly excited."

Berry notes that at Harvard, most students view Yale as the primary rival institution. On the West Coast, she says, students are talking about Stanford, not Yale.

Lovett's Kentucky friends were particularly skeptical of her choice because of Harvard's size.

"It wasn't so much a reaction to going out of state as a reaction to my going to Harvard," Lovett says. "There was a big thing with it being big."

The power of those preconceptions is often impossible to break, Stewart says.

"I think Harvard has a responsibility to overcome obstacles that are a part of people's backgrounds," she says. "People that are capable but don't think they could get in, for example. I don't think that Harvard has a responsibility to change people's cultural preferences."

'Harvard is Harvard. Period.'

Former South Carolina governor David Beasley likes to compare Harvard to a Harley-Davidson.

There are motorcyclists who say other brands are cheaper and get better mileage--even that they perform better. But in the end, nothing measures up to a Harley, says Beasley, a spring 1999 Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government's Institute of Politics.

"It's Harvard," says Beasley, a Harley owner. "It speaks for itself. I don't care where you go in the world."

When he arrived on campus, Beasley joked that as a Southern, white Republican male, he must be benefiting from Harvard's version of affirmative action.

His friends teased him when they found out he was a Fellow.

"A lot of my friends around the country called and said, 'Don't let 'em get to you,'" he says. "Right or wrong, there is a knee-jerk perspective that it is very much to the left."

"But Harvard is Harvard. Period," he adds.

Beasley says a Harvard conservative is a "rare jewel." However, political dialogue is an essential part of education, he says.

Regional pride is important, but Southern conservatives can still learn something from coming to Cambridge.

"While Harvard may be to the left, it's still very committed to those fundamental philosophical concepts of free speech," he says. "What I really respected was the incredible openness of dialogues on campus."

Harvard is unquestionably different from the South, he says, but it's also a "very respected and honored institution"--one to which he would consider sending his own children.

"Would I recommend that my child not go to Harvard? No way," he says. "Some of your best friends are sometimes the most liberal thinkers. The dialogue is educational."