The Case of the Poor Whites Against Harvard

The Summer School's Health Career Summer Program sounds like a liberal's dream. It is designed, according to its official prospectus, to prepare "ethnic minority college students who are interested in medicine and dentistry as careers and are disadvantaged in their pursuit of these careers." The 150-odd students in the program each year are all on full scholarship, getting free room, board and tuition and a $500 stipend in lieu of the money they would otherwise be earning in summer jobs. Most of the program's graduates end up in med school.

But there's one problem: the Health Career Summer Program is primarily for blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans and American Indians, not whites. Last year six of its 162 students were white, and the government grant that funds it is intended primarily for ethnic minorities, not whites.

For the program's first several years, this policy went largely unquestioned. Since last spring, however, a group of poor white medical students have been trying to get the program opened to whites as well as ethnic minorities--with little success, and a great deal of bitterness.

The Health Career Summer Program grew out of a similar program, the Intensive Study Summer Program (ISSP), that Harvard, Yale and Columbia conducted in the mid-60s. The ISSP was oriented to graduate school rather than medical school, and its students came from small colleges in the South, many of them black colleges. The students in the program would come to the Ivy League for a summer and leave better prepared for academic careers.

In April 1968, Robert H. Ebert, dean of the Medical School, created a committee for disadvantaged students. The committee, which studied possible ways to increase the enrollment of disadvantaged students at Harvard Medical and Dental Schools, recommended the establishment of a pre-med summer program similar to the ISSP.


The Health Career Summer Program had its first session in the summer of 1969 and was funded through donations from foundations and individual donors. Its students were predominantly black. In 1973, the Health Manpower Opportunity Office of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare gave the program a $1.1 million, three-year grant that would finance 150 students a year. Under the terms of the grant, the program was intended primarily for ethnic minority students.

Meanwhile, a group of poor whites at the medical school that had organized in October 1972 to aid the poor whites interested in medical careers got interested in the Health Career Summer Program. The group met in early 1973 with Thomas E. Crooks '49, director of the Summer School, and Dr. Delano Meriwether, who was then executive director of the health career program, to talk about places for poor whites in the program.

There are two versions of what happened next. The poor whites say Crooks and Meriwether decided to open the program to poor whites and, even though the application deadline for the 1973 program had passed, to allow the poor whites to recruit white students for that summer. Crooks, on the other hand, says he told the poor whites that the program did not exclude whites but was primarily for ethnic minorities. He says he did not tell the poor whites to recruit white students for the program.

As a result of the meeting, Crooks appointed two white students to the program's 18-member admissions committee, and members of the poor whites' group recruited white applicants in Kentucky and Chicago. The two white students never served on the admissions committee; they claim that Crooks excluded them from the committee, but Crooks says they never came to meetings. The committee accepted only one white student, a Boston welfare-mother, to the program for 1973.

Meriwether apparently felt uneasy about the idea of having only one white in the program; he thought she would feel uncomfortable as the sole white in the program. So he and Crooks called her in and asked her to withdraw from the federally-funded program and accept what they called "alternative funding" and to go the regular Summer School instead. She refused, and now says Crooks's alternative funding offer--which included free room, board and tuition and the same $500 stipend that students in the Health Career Summer Program get--was an "outright bribe."

Crooks met with representatives of the poor whites group again in June, and, the poor whites say, told them that he personally had decided to exclude whites from the program. Crooks has a different version of the meeting; he says he told them that the program "is not going to exclude whites, but does not want to stir up a white applicant pool."

In August 1973, three members of the poor whites group and Dr. A. Stone Freedberg, professor of Medicine, wrote a letter to President Bok outlining their grievances. As a result of the letter, Walter J. Leonard, special assistant to Bok for Minority Affairs, wrote HEW to ask about the specific terms of the funding for the Health Career Summer Program. John G. Bynoe, director of the regional HEW Office for Civil Rights, wrote back last month and affirmed that the grant is "primarily intended for specific racial and ethnic minority students.

Throughout the fall of 1973, the poor whites got increasingly restless, feeling that the University was being unresponsive to their problems. Last December, one of the group gave The Crimson a copy of the August letter to Bok, hoping that the publicity would spur the administration to action. The group plans to hold a sit-in in Bok's office to protest the exclusion of whites from the health program, and is considering filing a class action suit on behalf of all poor whites against the program.

So far the new publicity hasn't accomplished much. The Bynoe letter appears to ensure that the program's admissions policies will stay the same for the time being, unless the poor whites can find funding of their own to allow more poor whites to take part in the program.

Underneath all the bitterness and recrimination and at the heart of the controversy is the same problem the DeFunis case deals with: reverse discrimination.

It's doubtful, of course, that Crooks would see the issue in terms of that question; the program, he says, was set up largely by ethnic minorities and for ethnic minorities. But that argument doesn't really hold water. If you reversed the circumstances and asked whether a program set up by whites is justified in excluding blacks, the answer would clearly be negative. The people studying in a program should not necessarily be the same people that raised the money for the program. The question is, instead, whether poor blacks are, because of their race, intrinsically more disadvantaged than poor whites and hence more deserving of special help from institutions like Harvard.