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Harvard's Black Admissions


By Keith Butler

IN 1968, just after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Harvard and other white universities agreed to make concerted efforts to increase their schools' black student enrollments. The plan was to admit more blacks until the percentage of each race within the student body mirrored the distribution of races in the country as a whole. Consequently, the number of black students admitted increased over 100 per cent from 1968 to 1969.

One hundred of the 1250 freshmen enrolled in 1969 were black. Though the ratio fell short of the 12 per cent figure representing the blacks' share of the national population, those who pushed for increased black enrollment were pleased by Harvard's apparent effort.

For three years, 1969 to 1971, the number of blacks enrolled in Harvard's freshmen class hovered near the 100 mark. In 1972, the number dropped to 88 and then dropped to 77 in the present freshmen class. In the last two years the number of blacks enrolled at Harvard has decreased nearly 25 per cent. The University claims that the decline in the number of black enrollees was unplanned, but official explanations for the phenomenon are unconvincing.

Admissions officers have cited two reasons for the 25 per cent decline in black enrollment. First, teacher strikes in major Eastern urban centers interfered with recruiting. Second, black undergraduates now are less enthusiastic about recruiting new blacks than they have been in the past years.

The first explanation is faulty because Philadelphia was the only Eastern urban center plagued by teacher strikes in 1972-1973 and very few Harvard blacks prep in Philadelphia's public schools. The second explanation is difficult to attack statistically, but the perverse logic behind it is evident.

Claims by admissions officers that black undergraduates were insufficiently enthusiastic about recruiting suggest that black students are ultimately responsible for duties which other students can leave up to the admissions office. While every student should contribute something to recruiting, ultimate responsibility for the composition of a new class lies with the admissions office. When an important component of the student body drops 25 per cent in size the University, not undergraduates, is to be blamed. Ironically, admissions had engineered a 100 per cent increase in the number of black enrollees when there were very few black undergraduates around to lend assistance with recruiting.

SUCH SIGNIFICANT declines in enrollment probably do not occur without some type of change in admissions practices. At present, black students are more vulnerable to policy changes than any other group. As new members of the Harvard student community, blacks do not have an alumni or faculty power base to deal with admissions policy. WASPs and Jews have either one or both of these two powerful supports in their corner. As ethnic groups jockey for more slots in the College, places that belong to black students are least secure.

Now that student activism has passed, black students have lost their only means of influencing Harvard admissions policy. Blacks are going to have to come to grips with their powerlessness in both alumni and faculty quarters. While it is not blacks's exclusive responsibility to go out and recruit, it is incumbent upon them to reinitiate an active vigil over Harvard admissions. If black students neglect this responsibility there is nobody else to carry it out for them.

Martin Luther King's assassination stirred both intellectual and emotional commitments to solve America's social problems. In 1968 Harvard gave the impression that it was making a serious and conscious decision to institutionalize the admission of a representative number of blacks in the College. In 1973, it seems that Harvard's pledge to enroll more blacks was no more than an emotional reaction to a tragedy. This year's admission decision will be a decisive test of the validity of Harvard's commitment to black admissions.

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