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In Defense of Harvard

The University's Elitism Is a Fundamental Part of the Pursuit of Excellence

By Stephen E. Frank

"Harvard is embarrassed by its traditions, But it celebrates its embarrassment." Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53

I always knew I wanted to go to Harvard, I've always thought of it as the best college in the country. I suppose my second choice would have been Princeton. It's an excellent school, not too big, and it has a beautiful campus. I don't think you could have paid me to go to Yale--and I'm not just saying that as a soon-to-be Harvard alum.

Maybe that was naive of me, but if it was, then I guess I'm still naive. After four years here, I still believe Harvard is the best. That's not to say this University is perfect--far from it. But, by and large, despite its weaknesses, it has more strengths than anyplace else. (I don't put much stock in magazine rankings, but U.S. News ‚ World Report seems to agree with me. In their annual college survey, they've ranked Harvard #1 for the past five years.)

Deep down, I think most of my classmates probably agree with me as well. Publicly, though, they're not willing to admit it. Admitting that we have been privileged to study at the best school in the country is considered arrogant, and I can see why. I'm not advocating that we go around boasting loudly about our Harvard educations. Nor am I suggesting that those who attend other colleges and universities (even Yale) are necessarily less accomplished, or necessarily less well educated than those who study here.

But in the last four years, I've seen a lot of people act as though they're ashamed to be affiliated with Harvard. They warn others of the perils of elitism. They complain about how "out of touch" this place is. In short, they seem caught up in a competition of "I'm more populist than you."

Maybe it's just the journalist in me, but I see a trend developing, and I think it's a dangerous one. Of course, a certain measure of modesty among individuals is a virtue. But at an institutional level--at a place like Harvard--an overabundance of modesty risks undermining the very excellence to which the institution is dedicated.

Consider the Admissions Office's recent decision to begin accepting the Common Application for admission to the College. The ostensible reason for the change is that it makes applying to Harvard easier. After all, the old Harvard application wasn't inherently any more rigorous or probing than the Common Application. Doesn't it make sense, then, to allow applicants to save some time by simply using the same application for Harvard that they use to apply to a host of other schools?

I believe it does not. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with making the college application process less stressful and time-consuming--there isn't. But regardless of what questions the applications ask, what is important is the modicum of interest and initiative students used to have to demonstrate in applying to Harvard. Now, they no longer have to demonstrate that initiative. Under the new system, applying to Harvard may come as an afterthought to some--"What the heck, I've filled the thing out. Might as well just send it in and see what happens." Thus, a significant number of students who would otherwise never consider applying to Harvard now will. As a result, admissions officials hope, the pool of candidates applying to Harvard will become more diverse--or at least more plentiful, creating new jobs in the Admissions Office.

If this year's application process was any indication, then the Admissions Office's hopes have been amply fulfilled. A record 17,847 students applied to Harvard--up more than 2,500 from the year before. Officials attribute a substantial part of that increase to the easier application process.

Underlying the decision to embrace the Common Application is a desire for Harvard to seem less elitist. As Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 has said, by switching to the new system, "We are levelling the playing field." The obvious implication is that the field wasn't level enough in the first place. Apparently, by requiring applicants to obtain and fill out a Harvard application, the College was imposing what Fitzsimmons and others believe was an unfair hurdle on some applicants. This hurdle, we are told implicitly, smacks of elitism.

In the end, whether Harvard uses the Common Application or not probably doesn't make all that much difference. It simply means that Harvard's Admissions Office will be deluged with growing numbers of Applications, the vast majority of them frivolous. The less obvious side-effect, though, is that Harvard is effectively lowering its standards for admission. The quest for diversity should not consist of recruiting those who, absent the Common Application, would view applying to Harvard as too much of a chore. If that is considered elitism, then by all means, Harvard should be elitist.

Indeed, in some ways it seems "diversity" has become the buzzword of those who decry Harvard for being elitist. A stunning example of this occurred a few months ago, when the College found itself embroiled in debate over its refusal to admit Gina Grant, a high school honors student who had committed matricide. On the one side were those--like me--who argued that a woman who five years ago brutally bludgeoned her mother to death (and then lied about it in her college interview) does not deserve admission to Harvard. On the other side were those who lambasted the College for its arrogant refusal to give Grant a second chance.

"I think it's an atrocity that Harvard would do something like that," one such student told The Crimson, Ironically referring to the College with the same kind of strong language typically reserved for describing crimes like those committed by Grant. "They're here to give individuals like her opportunities. They just shot her down, and they did it unfairly. I'm hoping that Harvard pays for it through bad publicity."

Another student, Derek T. Ho '96, suggested that if Harvard were "serious about recognizing different life stories, admitting people with those different stories, then she is an exemplary story [that] we don't often see here at Harvard." Ho, who is co-managing editor of the Perspective, the College's self-described "liberal monthly," argued that the College "has lost the opportunity to admit someone who would have added to the Class of 1999. I think it was our loss."

This sort of haphazard bandying about of notions like diversity and elitism mocks the real meaning of the words. Harvard is not being elitist when it declines to open its doors to a killer. Acceptance here is no one's right. Rather, it is a privilege that should be selectively awarded based on each applicant's character, demonstrated commitment to excellence and capacity for achievement. Often, these standards are difficult to measure objectively; sometimes, no doubt, Harvard makes mistakes. But it is the commitment to upholding these standards that makes this University America's finest institution of higher learning.

Those who are embarrassed about the privileges they have earned at Harvard ultimately do themselves--and our society--a disservice. Harvard is great precisely because it is elite, because those who study and teach here are the elite, not in terms of their wealth or social status, but in terms of their accomplishments. At the Same time, a Harvard education is no guarantee of success. While it's true that a lot more of them are not. Even the best possible education is only a precursor to all that follows; just because one person attends Harvard and another attends Podunk U. doesn't mean that the former will necessarily contribute more to society than the latter.

Given this reality, those among us who deny that Harvard should be elite trivialize the meaning of their own education--and, by extension, their responsibility to apply that education in a worthwhile manner. Acknowledging that a Harvard education is a privilege, on the other hand, obligates us to use our education in meaningful ways that benefit those who could not study here.

As I graduate, I am more convinced than ever that Harvard was the best possible college for me. That recognition is tempered by the knowledge that now, the burden of proving I deserved this privilege rests squarely on my shoulders.

Next year, my younger sister will matriculate with the Class of 1999. I am proud of her and of all that I am convinced she will accomplish at Harvard and in the years beyond. I hope that she will never be embarrassed by the opportunities she has earned. And I hope that, in the future, our alma mater will not be embarrassed by the tremendous opportunities it represents.

Stephen E. Frank was Editorial Chair of The Crimson in 1994.

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