Harvard is very forthcoming about the diversity of its undergraduate population. The racial composition of each class is prominently featured in the glossy admissions booklet.
One type of statistic you won't find, however, is a listing of the academic performance of various groups within the general population. What is the average GPA of varsity athletes? Of Jegacies? Of certain racial groups which are affected by affirmative action?
Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 told me it is contrary to University policy to release indicators of academic performance for any group within the University population.
Yet these very statistics are absolutely central to evaluating the University's admissions policies.
The reasons for preferential admissions are admittedly numerous and complicated; they involve issues of fairness, justice, historical inequality and, in the case of admitting legacies, obligation to alumni. Though the performance of preferentially admitted students is not the only, or even a primary, factor in evaluating an admissions policy, it is certainly an important one.
Consider the fact that the divisive and hotly contested debate concerning affirmative action could be put to rest by what the numbers might reveal. If it turned out that the performance of racial minorities were comparable to that of the general Harvard population, we would be rid of the right wing's incessant allegations of unfairness, injustice and conspiracy against overqualified white males.
If it were the case that certain minorities were earning grades far worse than those of the general population, then that information would certainly affect attitudes toward affirmative action as it is currently administered.
In short, it is unreasonable to maintain that the performance of certain groups is irrelevant to the appraisal of admissions policies. The numbers have the potential to radically reshape the debate.
Since such fundamental issues deserve close scrutiny, these facts should be available to both scholars and campus publications involved in the debate.
Dean Jewett expressed concern that the figures might be misapplied by non-experts and tendentious Harvard editorialists. This is not only a very dismal appraisal of the abilities and good-will of the scholars and students involved in the debate, but also a feeble excuse for withholding information. The academic community has proved itself capable of absorbing and reasonably evaluating even volatile issues.
Interestingly, most people to whom I've mentioned my concerns have assumed that because I'm demanding these statistics, I'm a critic of affirmative action. They implicitly assume that the numbers, if made available, would indicate that racial minorities' performances are below average. This may not be the case.
Even if it were true, however, would it invalidate the concept of affirmative action? Certainly not.
Because affirmative action is an attempt to compensate oppressed groups for historically-based inequalities, it would be no surprise if these inequalities didn't dissolve immediately after the program's beneficiaries enter Harvard's Ivy-covered gates.
On the contrary, if the numbers show a pattern of low achievement, then the University is failing the students it seeks to help. If this were the case, then the University should make efforts to ensure that the preferentially admitted students are able to take full advantage of a Harvard education--competing on par with their non-minority classmates.
If the University were admitting minorities and allowing them to flounder without making efforts to help them, then these students have cause to feel betrayed.
Perversely, rather than protecting its students, the University is protecting itself by keeping these statistics hidden. Harvard is willing to be held accountable for the composition of its student body as a whole, but unwilling to be held accountable for the specific performance of those groups which it is allegedly interested in helping.
Does the University have a commitment to help people of color, or is the admissions office only interested in appeasing the powerful interests demanding equal representation? Does the University care whether the students it admits do well here?
The availability of these statistics would make Harvard accountable to the press, the faculty and the general University population. Opening the files would demonstrate that Harvard's commitment to helping minorities does not end upon sending out a letter of admission.
Much rhetoric has been let loose by the right alleging that minorities are being admitted as symbols, not students. It would be troubling and deeply ironic if the supposedly liberal and enlightened administration treated these students as symbols as well and weren't dedicated to helping these students do well here.
In the final analysis, the release of these statistics would be an important gain for scholars, the press and the University community. And the only conceivable reason for witholding this information is that the University administration is unwilling to be held accountable for the achievements of the groups it has pledged to help.