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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Admissions Office Faces Dilemmas; Continuing Search for Excellence Clashes With Concern for Feelings

By Michael S. Lottman

Future historians may decide that the Modern Era in Harvard admissions began on 23 Nov., in the year 1957 A.D., when the Yale football team downed Harvard by a staggering 54-0 count. From that time forward, loyal graduates--like Walter W. Birge, Jr. '35, who now says, "I got kind of discouraged watching us get walloped"--began a determined effort to give their alma mater a well-rounded student body. And if "well-rounded" turned out to mean "more athletic," that was all right too.

Of course, the number of applicants to Harvard has been on the rise for generations. In 1933, out of 1,297 applicants for the Class of 1937, 1,059 were accepted; by 1955, the number of candidates had grown to 3,816. The total dropped to 3,470 by 1957, but in 1958, the first spring after that awful football game, 4,030 high school seniors applied for admission. Then things really got out of hand; in 1959, a total of 4,155 applicants had to be screened, and in 1960, admissions became a permanent major headache as more than 5,200 students sought entrance into the Class of 1964.

Some blame the 1957 game, which stimulated the recruiting activities of banner-waving alumni all over the country, for the deluge that swelled to monstrous proportions in the ensuing years. Others cite the wartime birth rate, changing social values, increased gross national product, the enlarged importance of education, the atomic bomb, and the weather. What-ever the cause--and most likely it is a combination of all the above--the Admissions Office views each coming spring with dread, and finds itself in a situation where it is damned whether it does or it doesn't.

An outsider would think the admissions officers could scarcely have controlled their joy when the number of applicants this spring, expected to reach 5,500-5,700, stuck at 5,200. But this was not the case; admissions workers worried that too many boys had been scared out of applying.

Fred L. Glimp '50, Dean of Admissions, explains that the 1960 total represented a sudden climb of almost 1,000, and that meanwhile the rate of acceptance jumped four or five per cent. (The rate of acceptance is the percentage of successful applicants who actually enroll at Harvard. In 1952, the College could admit 1,940 applicants to get a class of 1,222; now the rate of acceptance is more than 80 per cent, compared to 63 in 1952.) Thus Harvard was forced to send out at least 1,000 more rejections than ever before in 1960, and the shock had a deep effect in the secondary schools.

The national press and radio "have been full of discouraging chit-chat," Glimp says, and high school guidance counselors have become more careful about Harvard. Moreover, many students and parents may decide that applying to Harvard is not worth the effort. "This rigorous self-selection worries us," Glimp says. Although he sees "no great problem as long as we handle our contacts and the press correctly," Glimp admits, "this could result in less breadth in our applicants."

Less breadth, obviously, would mean that the whole design of the Harvard admissions program had failed. The outline was suggested by Wilbur J. Bender, '27, former Dean of Admissions, in a letter to unsuccessful applicants in the spring of 1955: "We have proceeded on the belief that in our student body a mixture of diverse talents and interests and personalities and backgrounds, a mixture based on a variety of particular excellences as we found them in individual applicants, will produce the most fruitful and healthy educational environment in which students of widely varying sorts will live and work together and educate one another."

On the other hand, Glimp and his staff have nightmares about a never-ending flow of applications. "We now get applications from more than 2,000 schools," he points out. "But there are 25,000 secondary schools in the country. If we got just one applicant from one-third of them ..."

So Harvard, in its quest for excellence, is caught between two contradictory impulses. The College would like to avoid the pain, for the school and the applicant, that comes from rejecting a well-qualified boy; and the present system cannot handle many more candidates in a single year. But at the same time, Harvard is committed, to itself and to its tradition, to leave no place unvisited in its search for the unusual and talented applicant.

1961 Signs Encouraging

Still, there were some encouraging signs this spring. The number of applicants from what Glimp calls "unheard-of towns" went up, a heartening development for a college that values variety of outlook and back-ground. And applications from Boston's Catholic parochial schools nearly doubled, a fact which Glimp attributes to President Kennedy.

In all, the College admitted 1,385 of its 5,200 applicants this spring, about 27 per cent. Of these, 81 per cent, or 1,110, accepted admission. The College will need to admit 90 off the waiting list to add another 80 members to the Class of 1965, and 10 late applicants will fill out the group of 1,200.

Recently, the Ivy League colleges and about 200 other institutions agreed to make the date for notification of admission almost a month earlier next year. The new April 16 date may eliminate competition from small colleges that have required their applicants to accept or reject admission before the Ivy schools mail their notifications, and may help Harvard counteract the attraction of early scholarship offers from other schools. Glimp is in favor of the change, but he warns against pushing the date back any further. With the new Jan. 1 deadline for applications, candidates will be able to record less than half the achievements of their senior years, and Glimp is worried about provisions for "late bloomers."

Problems Still Remain

The 1961 spring, as usual, probably yielded the smartest, highest-scoring, best-endowed, most highly-scrubbed class ever, and the admissions problem was not as severe as it might have been. But difficulties remain to be solved in several areas. It is unlikely that applications next year will increase by 1,000, the way they did in 1960; but if they do, the present system may collapse. The only immediate solution for this eventuality is to hope that it doesn't happen. But two other problems deserve attention: the lingering emphasis on athletics and the dangers of the alumni-interview system.

Outside the Boston area, alumni do nearly 90 per cent of the recruiting, screening, and interviewing of prospective applicants. Although Glimp and the admissions staff try to maintain close contact with the 105 Schools and Scholarships Committees and 1,400 alumni workers, the old grads are of necessity on their own a good deal of the time. They represent Harvard to the students and parents of their areas, and in various ways they do much to influence the makeup of the Harvard student body.

Glimp points out that few schools place as much trust in their alumni as Harvard does in hers. For instance, Harvard informs its alumni workers of the ratings given by school principals to the candidates in their area--and this is highly confidential, highly volatile material. Twice in the past 10 years, high school principals have lost their jobs because information of this sort was "leaked," but on the whole the record has been surprisingly good on this score. In fact, for the most part, the alumni have worked out amazingly well. "Without the alumni, we could never screen and interview all our candidates," Glimp says, "and alumni often prevent high school guidance counselors from discouraging qualified applicants." Yet the feeling is hard to escape that the alumni might be better than they are; two illustrations, from central and southeast Ohio and from Minnesota, should serve to reveal these weaknesses. In both instances, the people contacted in these areas talked primarily and most enthusiastically about recruiting athletes. Sooner or later, they made it clear that they sought students, journalists, and the rest, but they evinced obvious relish only when discussing athletes.

The Best Recruiter

When Alex W. (Pete) Hart '62 was inaugurated as varsity football captain for the coming fall, one of those he thanked was "the guy who recruited me." The College's director of sports information, Baaron B. Pittenger, suggested "invite" as a more suitable synonym, but the meaning was clear. "The guy who recruited me" was Walter Birge of Columbus, O., president of the Harvard Club of central and southeast Ohio and Harvard's most famous recruiter.

"Pete Hart was my first recruit," Birge says today with pride. "And there are some good ones coming up. You watch the next two or three years."

Birge's Harvard Club covers one-third of the state in area, and roughly one-sixth of the population. The central-southeast part of Ohio is a rural area, dotted by small towns like Chillicothe, Gallipolis, Athens, and Mt. Gilead. The population of these towns runs from 2,000 to 15,000.

In each of the past three years Birge has sent 12 or 13 freshmen to Harvard from an area that was previously not very productive. Only one boy has not accepted admission in the three years. "There are lots of athletes," Birge says. "One boy has great SAT's in the mid-700's, and was an all-league quarterback and a three-sport athlete. He won all his school's academic prizes. He got a Harvard National."

Birge is enthusiastic about the Harvard Book Awards, given by many Clubs to outstanding junior class boys in their areas as a device to keep the schools Harvard-conscious. Birge likes to give out book prizes every year, but, he says, there are difficulties. "Sometimes, in a school that was disappointed (by not having its applicants accepted), I can't show my face--I run into bitter principals. So I don't give the books to the same schools every year. I do go to Columbus Academy every year; they always get a boy in."

The book prizes are generally for scholarship and character, but, Birge says, "Sometimes I tear out the inscribed flyleaf and give them for other types of ability." When questioned further, Birge explained, "This year I gave them to two scholar-athletes... but it's Harvard's book, and it states exactly what it's given for. There's nothing particularly wrong with it."

Despite the presence of sports-crazy Ohio State in his area, Birge claims to have no problem with competing schools. "Nobody can compete," he says, "because we have so much." But Birge recognizes a problem that has plagued nearly every Harvard Club--that of the good scholar-athlete whose father has a five-figure income, and who must choose between a costly Harvard education or a scholarship somewhere else. "We give on need, and they don't always do that out here," he remarks.

Curious Morality

He points proudly to the "case of an outstanding boy, all-Ohio, coming to Harvard even though he was offered a full scholarship elsewhere." But Birge--like Humphrey Doermann '52, a member of the Harvard Club of Minnesota and next year's Director of Admissions--adopts a curiously moralistic stand when discussing this type of case. "Sometimes a person thinks about money," he says, almost sadly. "If he's the type that succumbs to that kind of blandishment, we don't want him."

Doermann says on this subject, "If a boy's family regards cash outflow as what determines college, we lose out...if the family is going solely to dollars, we are hurt in competition." Then Doermann says, "I don't mean to take a moral tone," which seems a bit strange in view of his preceding remarks. But he realizes that the Harvard scholarship scale can be very tough on the middle-income family. "A middle-income job requires a certain standard of living--the money for spending is not great," he concedes. "A considerate kid may have a real problem." Still, he adds, "you have people who will scrape."

Spanning Minnesota

Doermann is a disciple of D. Donald Peddie '41, the guiding light of the Harvard Club of Minnesota. Peddie's incredible system for canvassing the entire state of Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and south central Canada has increased the area's annual contingent from 10 or 12 to an average of 28, all in 10 years' time. The Harvard Club of Minnesota is widely recognized as one of the liveliest and most efficient alumni groups in the country.

But all this is somehow soured when Peddie, explaining his methods, says, "I like to think I'm doing in Minnesota what Bob Blackman of Dartmouth is doing for the whole country....He hears of guys, tracks them down, and holds on." This is especially saddening, because it again shows an unusual and unhealthy emphasis on athletics, and because Blackman has given the Ivy League a bad name everywhere with his aggressive and, some say, illegal recruiting tactics. A debate among the Ivies this fall displayed a wide polartiy in interpretations of the Ivy League Code, with Dartmouth and Harvard at opposite extremes. It is troubling that a Harvard admission worker should want to espouse Blackman's methods.

Most of the increase in the Minnesota contingent has come from small public schools scattered all over the state. Peddie points out that personal visits to all the possible source schools would be impossible; "We figure we're going to get one boy from a school in five years--we can't appear every year." So, Paddie says, "we use an annual report on Minnesota boys at Harvard to get a foot in the door.... We send it to the boys we have tips on, and then sit back and wait for a nibble." If the boy responds in any manner, Peddie continues, "then we write to the school and say, "You tell us officially what he can do academically.' We tell the school that so-and-so has expressed an interest in us, which is literally true, even if exaggerated a little."

This cloak-and-daggering is necessary because Peddie's committed "can't get high school guidance counselors to stick their neck out." Minnesota is state university territory, and in the close-knit communities, Peddie claims, "a counselor can't afford to stick his neck out. . . . He can't favor us over a state university, or favor one Ivy college over another. The ones who will stick their necks out for us are the old gals, who don't want to be superintendents. Young guys have to watch it."

The important thing about a direct mail campaign, Peddie observes, is that "you've got to have some ideas whom you're going to get." This Peddie finds out "through all the sources I can think of." The secret of his success at recruiting is that he has established so many faithful contacts all over the state. He gets tips from alumni, undergraduates, school personnel and friends, as well as from a rather mysterious, athletically-minded group composed of "non-Harvard people that aren't school people or coaches." Peddie always peruses the small-town edition of the paper he works on, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and many local journals, with careful attention to the sports pages. "We get prospects any way we can," he says.

The Minnesota club has an advantage, Peddie says, in that "Glimp and his committee have a slight bias for these small town boys. Give 'em one from Long Prairie and they get enthused . . . willing to take a gamble. They add a little bit in their minds to his Board scores."

One is tempted to ask whether Harvard, even in a quest for excellence, should solicit candidates so directly and, indeed, so desperately. And one would feel better even about these techniques if they were less strongly oriented toward athletes. Glimp and the staff try to visit local workers as frequently as possible, to keep them up to date on University policy, but the alumni obviously have considerable freedom of discretion. This freedom, if misused, could lead to most serious imbalances in incoming classes.

Whither the Interview

A basic ingredient of the selection process is the interview. Around Boston and at many big prep schools, admissions officials do the interviewing, but in the towns and villages around the country this job too falls to the alumni. Interviewing is not an easy art; and on many committees, as one alumnus says, the job goes "to anyone who wants to do it."

For one thing, the interview is a highly artificial situation. The boy is dressed up, he probably has traveled a great distance, and he is in unfamiliar surroundings. He carefully censors his own remarks, and usually he tries to give what he thinks is the "right" answer. Most of all, he is nervous; he knows his whole future may be at stake every time he opens his mouth.

The alumnus is in slightly better shape, but no much. He is not always sure what to ask, and he may find it hard to get below the surface. He realizes the boy is scared, but often he does not know how to put him at his ease; and sometimes the interviewer himself feels awkward.

"I do have trouble with interviews," Birge admits. Even so, he has interviewed more than 300 boys. "It's very difficult to judge in a half hour or an hour. Some boys are very shy, and I haven't known a great majority of the guys before the interview." Birge wonders, "When you get a guy who doesn't look like much--what to do? Especially if the guy is not an extrovert, and he sits there with his mouth dry and his feet shuffling. He knows his life depends on what you say. I feel for the boys; they're scared. They want to go to Harvard. They're thinking. 'If Birge thinks I'm a jerk, I won't go there.' I don't take off for shyness--I look for a little spark of greatness, a spark of creativity."

Doermann says, "If you find that rare person who can talk to and appraise boys with a wide range of backgrounds, a person with breadth and perception who knows enough of what Harvard requires, then the interview works beautifully. It provides an important and different kind of information." But new men on the job or those who lack the necessary breadth may run into difficulty, Doermann says, and another weakness of the interview is that it is a snap judgment. "You have to take interview reports in perspective," he warns, a sentiment with which Glimp would agree.

"For instance," Doermann explains, "Glimp takes charge of Minnesota. He has read reports from 10 or 15 interviews, and has talked with two-thirds of them. He has his own size up of the men. He's capable of discounting bias--if he knows an interviewer likes gregarious kids, he'll understand a bad rating for a shy one."

"Some grad schools think the interview is a weak device," Doermann says, "but if you have good interviewers and people to take it in perspective, it can be successful. The problem is to get more and better interviewers."

New Approaches

Official Harvard has been concerned with the interview. Glimp emphasizes the decreasing reliance on objective criteria, and the growing importance of arbitrary, or non-objective, standards. Questions such as "Who would flourish in the bottom fourth of his class?" and "Who can get the most out of Harvard?" are hard to answer. In an attempt to remedy this defect, Dean K. Whitla, Director of the Office of Tests, has been experimenting with a 20-22 question interview conducted with the aid of a tape recorder. The new interview was used by 50-60 boys in various parts of the country who were already fairly sure of admission, and the results will be studied in depth. Already, some alumni are protesting the idea of a scientifically-based interview, but Glimp insists, "This isn't strictly scientific; it's just a help to give us a firmer grasp. We're not going to turn interviewing over to a machine."

A sample hypothesis that the new interviews are expected to support is this: a boy who has a family genuinely interested in what he does-one that supports him but does not pressure him--is likely to develop strong ego qualities, and be willing to gamble intellectually. Glimp says, "A fellow with the ability to be a free wheeler--to do things he's not entirely sure of--ought to be at Harvard. The country needs him, and maybe Harvard trains this type better than others."

Alumni reaction has been varied. Some, like Birge, favor the idea of a rigidly structured interview, in which the alumnus serves mainly to transcribe the candidate's remarks. Many think the use of a tape recorder would be impossible, Some, like Doermann, would prefer a free rein in interviewing, and would not-be willing to follow a set pattern of questioning. And, of course, nearly all interviewers would maintain their right to subjective judgment.

"A Sixth Sense"

It does seem that a more systematic process is in order. When Birge says of interviewing, "I have to rely on instinct, how the boy looks to me. It's sort of a sixth sense," one has the uneasy feeling that a very large chance is being taken. (A mitigating factor here is the Admissions Office's well-placed faith in teachers' reports; Glimp says, "A front may fool an interviewer, but not usually a teacher.")

Taken all in all, Harvard's admissions operation has done quite well, despite the feelings of detractors that the selection committee might take any 1,200 boys and come out with an equally capable class. Harvard's ambitious system allows the College to amass a large amount of data about its candidates. But the College still has problems. Only two Harvard Clubs are discussed in this article, and generalization is dangerous. Yet these clubs are two of the most productive, and in their activities, at least, there may be cause for alarm.

When the Lampoon parodied the CRIMSON recently, the lead article claimed that 518 successful applicants had decided not to accept. Almost immediately, guidance counselors and parents called or wrote the Office of Admissions to ask for another chance for their students or sons. In some cases, the students themselves begged for reconsideration. To some, this was funny, But for Glimp, who was forced to add new disappointment to previous rejections, the incident was a fresh realization that workers in admissions are dealing with human pain. It is this element that demands all possible care.FRED L. GLIMP '50 Dean of Admissions and Scholarships

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