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Diversity Report Lacking in Candor

PERSPECTIVES

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Neil L. Rudenstine has good cause to be happy. His "Diversity and Learning" report, issued earlier this year, stamps Harvard as a firm supporter in the national debate over affirmative action. A deeply critical response in The Weekly Standard by government professor Harvey C. Mansfield draws accusations of racism and a protest from students. The president emerges as an enlightened defender of diversity in higher education, and Harvard's continued commitment to affirmative action is lauded by students and faculty. Something is very wrong with this picture.

Mansfield's critique of affirmative action is unsubstantiated, insensitive and even bizarre. But in their (justified) haste to condemn his theatrical diatribe, students might wish to think twice before rushing to Rudenstine's defense. "Diversity and Learning" does do an admirable job at outlining the theoretical justifications for affirmative action. But behind Rudenstine's feel-good overview of diversity in higher education are glaring omissions: he ignores both the problematic history of affirmative-action programs at Harvard, and the decades-old legacy of dissatisfaction and frustration among its minority students. The report is not so much an assessment of "diversity and learning" at Harvard as a thinly disguised public-relations tool, garnering the liberal sympathies of Harvard students and faculty even as it masks the University's troubled past with affirmative action and student race relations.

Mansfield attacks affirmative action at Harvard with an unjustified relish. His key assertion is that affirmative action harms "the morale of the institution, which depends almost entirely on its devotion to academic excellence." If there is a widespread sentiment that the university's academic excellence and morale are threatened by incapable minority students, such feelings have escaped this author's notice. Counselors and tutors repeatedly report that students find life at Harvard stressful, competitive and tiring. Few students have the time or energy to engage in philosophical speculation as to whether Harvard's "excellence" is eroding.

Also unsubstantiated is Mansfield's assertion that Harvard's excellence "is compromised by the desire for diversity." Nearly all of its minority graduates--ostensibly those who benefited from affirmative action in getting in--have gone on to successful and fulfulling careers. Unable to empirically demonstrate inferior performance by minority students while at Harvard, Mansfield instead lashes out against grade inflation, an entirely separate issue.

A third argument put forward by Mansfield regards the disparity between the SAT scores of black and white admits to Harvard. He notes the discrepancy with glee, as if the fact of its existence somehow demonstrates the insidiousness of affirmative-action programs. But the very purpose of affirmative action is to supplement criteria like test scores with a more complete view of applicants' other qualities. In his report, President Rudenstine acknowledges the gap, but rightly points out, first, that a fair admissions program does not look at numbers alone, and second, that black SAT scores have been gradually converging with white scores over the last 20 years. And Mansfield's suggestion that black "underperformance" may be "inherited" is so groundless, crude and inappropriate that a serious response here is impossible.

Finally, a word on Mansfield's discussion of "Asians." Asian American communities are deeply ambivalent on the issue of affirmative action, but one thing is clear: they do not wish to be used as rhetorical pawns by its (white) opponents. In perpetuating the myth of Asian Americans as a "model minority," Mansfield ignores the socioeconomic diversity of Asian America. Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian American communities, for example, have higher rates of poverty on average than African American and Latino communities, and Filipino Americans--the second largest Asian American group--are underrepresented at nearly all the nation's top schools. Mansfield ignores, or is ignorant of, the continuing obstacles facing Asian American progress, and even worse, adds to the divisiveness that has traditionally plagued cooperation among minorities.

The very vehemence of Mansfield's criticisms stands to the credit of Rudenstine's report, however. The president does seem to believe that diversity "is the substance from which much human learning, understanding, and wisdom derive." Yet the report suffers from three major flaws.

First, in his lengthy historical account of the role of diversity in Harvard's development, Rudenstine's argument that current affirmative-action policies are compatible extensions of the diversity held in mind by past Harvard presidents is unconvincing. Both men viewed diversity primarily in terms of geographic origins and intellectual passions, not race. Rudenstine spends more than half his report outlining the historical context of diversity. While paying lip service to the often unjust ways in which Harvard has treated its "other" students--blacks, southern European immigrants, Jews, women--Rudenstine largely omits mention of these unadmirable accomplishments. Four omissions:

* The first African Americans admitted to the Medical School were forced to withdraw in 1851 after groups of white students protested.

* W.E.B. DuBois, class of 1890, is lauded as an example of Harvard's 19th-century openmindedness, yet his experience here, isolated from most white students, was far from happy. "I was at Harvard, but not of it," he once wrote.

* President A. Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, tried unsuccessfully in 1922 to impose a quota on Jewish admissions.

* Harvard faculty, including Louis Agassiz and Ernest Hooton, were involved in and helped to lead the now-discredited eugenics movement.

The President's Report is an opportunity for candor and self-reflection, not sentimental cheer-leading. The omission--suppression?--of such important historical occurrences, combined with the inclusion of more favorable ones, is at best inaccurate and at worst deceptive.

Second, and more significant, Rudenstine's rosy picture of Harvard's history with affirmative action is grossly misleading. He mentions not a single word about the two-year Justice Department investigation of Harvard's admissions policies with regard to Asian Americans, conducted from 1988 to 1990. This major federal review, the biggest ever of the university's admissions policies, found that "Asian American applicants have been admitted at a significantly lower rate than white applicants" and found that admissions office readers frequently wrote stereotyping comments on the applications of Asian American students. These remarks included: "so typical of other Asian applicants I've read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English." Although the department did not find Harvard to be in violation of federal statutes, it criticized Harvard's preferential admission of (mostly white) legacy students.

The President's Report also neglects to mention room for improvement in Harvard's recruitment policies. Currently, for instance, little outreach is done at rural or inner-city high schools. These omissions, if included, would be markedly at odds with the happy picture Rudenstine seeks to paint.

The third and most important shortcoming in Rudenstine's report is the total omission of the administration's troubled relationship with minority students over the past 20 years. Any claim that diversity is crucial to educational excellence is meaningless if diversity is not supported by legitimate and adequately supported structures, open-minded administrators and a commitment to tolerance and interaction among students of different backgrounds. Disturbingly, Rudenstine declines to mention some of the most momentous concerns that minority students have repeatedly voiced since the 1970s, including:

* The continued lack of a consistent administrative policy with regard to complaints of racial harassment. Over the years, the Dean of Students, the Dean of the College, the Harvard Police Department, House Masters, the Office of Race Relations and Minority Affairs, the Administrative Board and the Bureau of Study Counsel have overlapped and even worked at cross-purposes in dealing with student grievances.

* The persistent refusal to provide a minority resource center for student groups to make books and other resources available for all students.

* The glacial inertia against which Harvard has tenured a handful of minority and women faculty--this, despite the fact that the 1980 Dean Whitla Report admitted that Harvard practiced "at best, passive recruitment" of people of color.

* The near total absence of minorities in the upper echelons of the central administration and of the schools, and the underrepresentation of minorities among the University officials who have close interaction with students.

* The waffling, delays and sheer resistance to the offering of more courses--not a department, not a concentration, just more courses--in the field of race and ethnic studies.

These flaws are not meant as a laundry list of complaints. Rather, they are a real chronology of the serious challenges facing "diversity and learning" at Harvard -- challenges that the university, and its president, must own up to if diversity is to be more than a superficial catchphrase.

Mansfield's comments on diversity are easy to attack, but Rudenstine's report is dangerous, in a distinct and subtle way. Through its omissions, the report succeeds in painting a superficial and ultimately dishonest picture of diversity at Harvard, one that admirably draws out the theoretical implications of diversity without looking at the real ways in which it is practiced. "Diversity and Learning" is a failure -- but not for the reasons cited by Mansfield. It is a failure because of its incompleteness.

Mansfield certainly deserves condemnation; but Rudenstine should not be allowed to escape a profound skepticism over the sincerity and consistency of the University's ostensible commitment to diversity. It is fair for Harvard students to hold their president to a high standard. It is fair for them to expect a certain level of candor and introspection when what is arguably America's top university issues so public a statement. It is fair to expect that Rudenstine, an English professor, be more probing and more honest than the glossy admissions and fundraising brochures the university produces in such high quantities. It is fair to expect that the president discuss not only diversity's theoretical value but the actual challenges a university faces in making it a meaningful and real component of student life. It is fine to expound on the intellectual implications of diversity in higher education, but without a corresponding commitment to promoting diversity after admission, this becomes an empty rhetorical exercise.

Affairs at Harvard, and in American civic life, have been increasingly pervaded with apathy in the past 30 years. If our public leaders, in the academy and in government, refuse to engage in the difficult yet necessary work of honest self-assessment, then concepts like "diversity" will only exist as shallow mantras, and cynicism in public life can only continue to grow.

Sewell Chan '98 is co-chair-elect of the Academic Affairs Committee of the Harvard Foundation and is co-president of the Asian American Association.

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