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Black Admissions: Reemerging Patterns

By The HARVARD Radical union

Four years ago Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences enrolled more blacks than it did last year, or this year, or any year before or after those rebellious days at the end of the 1960s. Despite the great ado about recruiting minorities and establishing Afro-American Studies, the plain fact is that classes entering the Graduate School recently have been "whiter" than those of some earlier years. Why has Harvard's attempt at integration failed? Has there in fact been a genuine attempt at integration at all?

Harvard enrolled more blacks in 1970 than in any other year of the University's history. Since 1970, black enrollment has decreased dramatically to its present abysmal level of nine blacks in a class of 468.

How is this to be explained? We are forced to conclude that the temporary increase in black admissions was a response to the social upheaval of the 1960s and particularly to the militancy of the black liberation movement. The response was merely a cosmetic change in Harvard's image. Fundamentally the institution has remained a bastion of white supremacy.

Of course, Harvard officialdom has a different explanation. In 1973, Harvard admitted 8 per cent of its black applicants and 18 per cent of its white applicants. According to Nina P. Hillgarth of the graduate admissions office, the applications from black students were "absolutely rotten" (telephone conversation, February 27, 1974). In 1972, Harvard had a minority recruiter, Joseph Strickland, who while touring black campuses recruited over 200 black applicants. Harvard eventually enrolled 13. Peter S. McKinney, administrative dean of the GSAS, said that most of Strickland's recruits were "unqualified" (interview, February 15, 1974).

What are the qualifications which black students supposedly lack? The nominal criteria for graduate admissions include academic records, recommendations and Graduate Record Examination scores.

Although it may be true in some cases that black undergraduates receive lower grades than whites, the context in which this occurs must be understood. It is not that black students are incapable. Rather prejudicial treatment by professors and advisors, the irrelevant or racist content of courses and the day-to-day struggle to survive within an alienating environment all make it more difficult for blacks to succeed.

On the other hand, Harvard arrogantly assumed that a B-plus from a predominantly black college is not equivalent to a B-plus from the Ivy League. Applicants from other elite colleges, where the proportion of blacks is very small, have a tremendous advantage. The same arrogance characterizes Harvard's valuation of letters of recommendation. Letters from well-established professors at "prestigious" universities are taken seriously; others are regarded with skepticism. Thus, minority students, especially those who are politically active, are screened out.

The use of GRE scores in graduate admissions policies further discriminates against blacks. The Educational Testing Service claims that "questions that would reflect biases, such as those in favor of certain backgrounds or a particular sex, are carefully avoided." Yet these tests, rather than measuring competence, simply reflect the specific kinds of information which are acquired in courses at "major" universities. Even the structure and form of these tests reflect an elitist educational system.

Aside from the spurious justification that blacks lack "qualifications," the GSAS admissions office has a second line of defense for its policies. This year, of the 25 blacks admitted, only nine came. Harvard admitted 18 per cent of its black applicants and 16 per cent of its applicants overall. Yet the number of black applicants was still under 3 per cent of the total pool. The GSAS claims that blacks are not applying to the GSAS because they prefer to go to professional schools. It is true that more students of all races are trying to get into law or medical school, but there is little or no evidence that blacks are attending these schools disproportionately.

So much for the doubletalk that masks Harvard's racist admissions policies. Why should black students come to Harvard? Philip Gay, a minority recruiter in the GSAS, reports that black graduate students feel "alienated" and therefore complete their degree programs and leave as quickly as possible (Crimson, November 5, 1974). Dean McKinney and David Evans, an undergraduate admissions officer, inform us that many black students see Harvard as a white-dominated institution, committed to sheltering "scholars" who promote racist ideas, while systematically discriminating against minority students. Harvard admits that many blacks believe this, yet it does not recognize that their attitude is based on reality and that it consitutes a searing indictment of the functions of the university within an unjust society.

Indeed, even though we may like to think of ourselves as liberal-minded, we must confront the fact that Harvard is a racist institution. The graduate admissions policy is just one aspect of this. Not only does the GSAS admit few blacks, but it blames this situation on blacks themselves. That people can think that black students are not "qualified" is highly disturbing. It fosters fascist ideas. How often is the failure of a white student to complete his or her degree attributed to lack of motivation in the face of a deteriorating job market, whereas the failure of a black student is seen as an example of academic inferiority or personal pathology?

During the last five years, Harvard's racism has become more apparent. The intensification of discriminatory admissions policies, the continuing attacks on the Afro-American Studies Department and the elaboration of various racist theories by Harvard professors, are examples of this. Yet these are only the most blatant manifestations of the way in which racist ideology permeates all aspects of University life.

More subtly, the notion of meritocracy (the idea that a social hierarchy based on supposedly objective qualities is natural) ideologically supports a racist status quo. The ethos of professionalism, while pretending to esteem scholastic excellence, in fact promotes racist ideas, implicit as well as explicit, under the guise of value-free research.

Even the pretense that success at Harvard depends on scholarly "merit" may disintegrate, as it did when economic cutbacks forced the GSAS to skip over needy yet more "qualified" applicants. Admissions procedures, personal financial pressures and the imperatives of classroom success all attempt to legitimize the deliberate exclusion of undesirables, most notably minority people, workers and women.

The University implants an ideology in each of us. If we internalize meritocratic assumptions, we come to think of ourselves as "better" because we "made it into Harvard" while others did not. Unless we challenge this idea, we shall enter government, industry and the educational establishment harboring a fundamentally racist, elitist and anti-working-class worldview. Thus Harvard will have successfully fulfilled its role in furnishing the ideological underpinning of an inegalitarian and oppressive society.

All statistics in this article come from the office of Peter S. McKinney, administrative dean of the GSAS. Prior to 1972, that office has no data concerning the applications-versus-admissions ratio for black graduates.

The Harvard Radical Union is an organization of graduate students concerned with teaching, curriculum, financial aid and admissions policies, and other political issues. Blacks at GSAS: A Numbers Game Year  no. entering  per cent of class  Year  no. entering  per cent of class 1965  2  0.2  1970  31  4.5 1967  3  0.3  1971  19  3.2 1967  3  0.3  1972  13  2.3 1968  8  1.0  1973  8  1.5 1969  22  2.6  1974  9  1.9

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