Grant Educates Harvard

The Gina Grant story and the volatile and energetic debate which it has sparked offer an important opportunity to discuss some interesting issues in higher education. It is a referendum, not on the particularities of Grant's situation, which might encourage the spouting of easy moral judgments--but rather on what it means to attend Harvard University and on what it means to want to attend Harvard.

Two things have been made completely clear in tracing the ghastly, hubristic are of this tragedy: the continuing power which the Harvard name exerts nationally--the reports of our decline have been apparently premature--and the enduring belief that Harvard possesses redemptive, transformative powers.

Admittance to this particular ball is supposed to and can, transform the lowly into the anointed. There are lots of Cinderellas here. Acceptance can reinforce the ranks of those who are already part of the elite. A Harvard degree is supposed to guarantee unparalleled power and influence.

This enduring belief in Harvard's transformative power and the role which it plays in the national psyche, is what, on the most basic level causes thousands of starry-eyed adolescents to vie each year for the privilege of admission.

It is why they submit themselves to a byzantine, irrational admissions process. It is why they are willing to distill the complexities of their lives into a few pages for perusal by faceless bureaucrats like the ones at Byerly Hall and their national counterparts.


Other important questions are raised by Harvard's rescinded offer. Why is America allowing its elite to be selected by these faceless people, whose conception of what the country's elite should look like, is transmuted into reality?

Why is access to tertiary education, a necessity in today's world, in the stranglehold of the chosen few who wield this enormous power in fashioning America's managerial class?

There are of course the usual disclaimers: "our goal is to admit good talented people. We have no quotas of any kind--gender, race, ethnicity, field of study, geographic locale, extracurricular activities. We want to bring together individuals who will make up an exciting and diverse class..." trumpets the Harvard-Radcliffe application.

But the fact remains that the extent and definition of diversity is questionable. The definition of diversity lists towards the easy ones--racial, economic and geographic, in spite of the Admissions Committee's denials. People whose parents have "done right by them" constitute the majority of Harvard students.

I am not particularly sympathetic towards Grant. One woman is dead as a result of her actions. That fact cannot and should not be easily dismissed.

But one of the larger questions which the Grant case raises, is at what point does a life become unsalvageable? Can Grant's life be now described as such? I think not. I am absolutely sure that Grant will land on her feet--I suspect that even as I write, book editors, movie producers waving contracts, are beating or will soon be beating a path to her door.

Grant will thrive wherever she ends up. People who have experienced the privation and marginalization and demonstrated the kind of practical resilience that she has demonstrated, usually do.

Margaret Burnham, Grant's attorney and a former Boston Municipal Court Justice, told me, "I took this case because this individual needed help [in reconstructing her life]. I hope that if the decision were reversed and she was accepted, I would hope that [she would not be ostracized] and Harvard students would show the same generosity of spirit that so many others have shown to her."

Grant is certainly not entitled to a Harvard education. No one is. But she is certainly giving Harvard an education.

Lorraine A. Lezama's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.