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Diversity Dilemmas

The Office of Admissions says it has reversed the embarrassing mistakes of the past. Yet the politics of "diversity" bring their own problems.

By Geoffrey A. Fowler, Crimson Staff Writer

W. E. B. Du Bois, Class of 1890, once said he realized "all the irony" whenever he sang "Fair Harvard." Future founder of the NAACP, Du Bois was also the only black undergraduate in his class.

"I was in Harvard, but not of it," Du Bois reflected in 1960. Excluded from residence, extra-curricular activities and friendships with other white students, his mixed sentiments foretold Harvard's often-ambiguous relationship with what Du Bois would famously term "the problem of the 20th century"--race.

Although the College first opened its doors to African-American, Jewish and other minority students long before other Ivy League colleges, the embarrassment of race-based prejudices, both explicit and latent, forced the Office of Admissions to play catch-up in the 1970s along with the rest of America's predominantly white institutions.

The face of Harvard at the turn of the 21st century looks vastly different from the one that stigmatized Du Bois.

Today, some one-third of admitted classes define themselves as members of ethnic minority groups.

But while Harvard's admissions brochures of the past two decades have chanted the mantra of the University's "rich diversity," its new take on selectivity brings with it new dilemmas that 8 Garden St. continues to battle.

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK

Historians today celebrate turn-of-the-century President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, as a diversity innovator for his times, expanding the geographic and economic reaches of the Harvard student body.

However, his successor, President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, who replaced Eliot in 1909, led the movement for racially restrictive admissions at Harvard, supported by a majority of the alumni. Fearing that American political and social institutions could not survive in a heterogeneous society, Lowell attempted to enact a limit to the "proportion of Jews at the College," but was later rejected by the Overseers.

"We have not thought it possible to compel men of different races to reside together," Lowell wrote in defense of a similarly reasoned proposal to prevent black students from living in Harvard Yard, also later overturned.

"One will do a good deal of cringing at that history," says William R. Fitzsimmons '67, dean of admissions for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

"Lowell's conduct...is definitely something we should be ashamed of and has limited for a long time appreciation of his other accomplishments," says outgoing Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, one of the College's very first African-American administrators.

"When I came to Harvard in '58, what [made an impression] for me about social life was how anti-Semitic it was," Epps says.

THE BLAME GAME

During the placid 1950s, while GI Bill benefits spurred an increasingly diversified applicant pool, racial inequality was a problem to be seen, but not heard.

The prevailing sentiment in the 1950s, recalls Secretary of the Faculty John B. Fox Jr. '59, was "quite a strong view that it was unethical to inquire or reveal race."

"The New England conscience was that you dealt with `prejudice' by not stating it," he says.

A 1956 Crimson article, written as part of a larger series tackling the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school segregation decision, perhaps typifies the racial attitudes of the times. The article, headlined "Only Individual Bias Exists at Harvard," concluded that, "all in all, Harvard's admissions policy for Negroes is an non-discriminatory as the University itself is to Negroes studying here."

"The Negro has the opportunity if he can--and wants to--take it," the article remarked, to explain why only 35 black students enrolled in the College that year.

THE WATERSHED

The pre-Civil Rights era did not completely ignore the problem of race, and the University can boast pioneering deans of admissions John U. Monro '34 and Wilbur J. Bender '27, who recognized the importance of extending opportunity to all.

But administrators now say that it was the Kennedy Administration, the Great Society and consciousness-raising of the 1960s that brought the issue of race to the forefront. The Harvard admissions office responded full steam ahead, changing its recruiting strategies "almost overnight," according to Fox.

"Selective admissions," once a euphemism for racial discrimination, now meant the admissions committee could spend time and money on the vigorous solicitation of potential minority applicants.

The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awakened white America as a whole--and Harvard in particular--to racial inequality. While Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey '28 led a service honoring King inside Memorial Church, about 80 black students stood outside in protest, one reportedly saying, "We don't want their tears--we want black people to have a place at Harvard."

Harvard responded with not only the creation of an Afro-American Studies concentration later that year, but also through a completely revamped admissions plan.

"Most of what we are talking about happened beginning in the '69 to '70 year," remembers senior admissions officer David L. Evans, who joined the staff that year. "Before that, there were some African Americans, but very few--starting the fall of 1968, there was a major recruiting effort."

"New England kind of woke up to the fact that not judging anything wasn't going to work," Fox remembers.

Not all, however, thought that the political fervor of the time brought with it wise choices. "There was an enormous desire to increase the number of black students, and there were some students who we did not do any kindness by admitting," Fox says.

Evans remembers the period as a time of emotion and "political give and take."

"We were feeling our way. We were learning, and we're the better off for having tried," he says.

DIVERSITY RULES

After the fervor of the late 1960s, the 1970s ushered in yet a new white backlash to the "affirmative action" policies. Harvard's policy, documented and celebrated as "ideal" by the Supreme Court's 1974 Bakke v. California case, was to maintain its admissions system, but shift away from the language of affirmative action altogether.

Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis '70-'73 stresses to this day that Harvard does not use an "affirmative action" admission system.

"We regard affirmative action as a term to describe an employment practice," she writes in an e-mail message. "It does not connote very well our admission practices, which include regarding ethnicity and other aspects of background as `plus' factors, but which do not include a systematic formula of preference."

Though the numbers haven't wavered much in recent years, admissions officers emphasize that they don't try to reach magic ratios.

To ensure that sufficient attention is given to racial and ethnic diversity, however, since the 1970s, the committee on admissions often employed an additional reader, explains Lewis, "to help the committee be sure that each candidate's particular circumstances (especially connected to ethnicity or culture) did not obscure the excellence of the case."

This year brought an end to the role of that special "fourth" reader for minority applications. Fitzsimmons and Lewis agree that awareness at Harvard and in the rest of the nation have changed sufficiently that such an additional reader is no longer necessary.

"We are quite confident now that our staff and committee are informed and sensitive, in ways that we might not have been as we were gaining experience," Lewis says.

The real battle for a racially diverse College,Fitzsimmons says, is fought in who applies to thecollege--not whom he and other admissions officerschoose to admit. Their main weapons includespecial letters, brochures and the UndergraduateMinority Recruitment Program (UMRP), whichprovides 10 minority contacts for potentialapplicants and sends them on trips to recruit atschools in their hometowns.

"There are still misconceptions out there, Itis our role to dismiss them," says Heather C.Chang '99, a student coordinator of the UMRP.

THE BLAME GAME AGAIN

While the emphasis on "diversity" providedshelter from attacks against affirmative action inthe 1980s, those displeased with the end result ofHarvard's system have found new avenues forattack.

In November 1998 and January 1999 editorialcolumns, Republican presidential candidate PatrickJ. Buchanan asserted that Harvard and the rest ofthe Ivy League need to "look more like America,"specifically critiquing the "overrepresentation"of Jewish and Asian-American students at Harvard.

"If proportional representation is the name ofthe game, Christian and European-Americans shouldget into the game, and demand their fair share ofevery pie: 75 percent, and no less," Buchananwrites.

Fitzsimmons emphasizes that Harvard doesn'tslice up pies. "Diversity is really much more of ameans to an end. You want people of all differentkinds of excellences," he says.

But even if Harvard won't admit it, attacks byBuchanan and others who hope to claim a piece of"diversity" for themselves threaten to damage thelegitimacy of Harvard admissions'community-building project.

The strategy--for now--seems to be yet anothershift in the language of the College'sself-proclaimed selectivity. The first pages ofthe admissions brochures from throughout the pastdecade show that the self-proclaimed "hallmarks"of the Harvard College experience have changedfrom "diversity" in 1991 to "distinction anddiversity" in 1994 to the "pursuit of excellence"in 1999.

The words may change, but Byerly Hall today isstill plagued by dilemmas of representation andinequality that began to be exposed duringLowell's leadership.

The problem of the 21st century will involvethe debate over who has access to the powergranted by a Harvard education--a question leftunanswered after Du Bois posed it nearly a centuryago.CRIMSONLAURA K. COBBADMISSIONS EXPERT: HEATHER C. CHANG '99,a student coordinator of the UndergraduateMinority Recruitment Program, also wrote herhonors thesis on race-based admissions.

The real battle for a racially diverse College,Fitzsimmons says, is fought in who applies to thecollege--not whom he and other admissions officerschoose to admit. Their main weapons includespecial letters, brochures and the UndergraduateMinority Recruitment Program (UMRP), whichprovides 10 minority contacts for potentialapplicants and sends them on trips to recruit atschools in their hometowns.

"There are still misconceptions out there, Itis our role to dismiss them," says Heather C.Chang '99, a student coordinator of the UMRP.

THE BLAME GAME AGAIN

While the emphasis on "diversity" providedshelter from attacks against affirmative action inthe 1980s, those displeased with the end result ofHarvard's system have found new avenues forattack.

In November 1998 and January 1999 editorialcolumns, Republican presidential candidate PatrickJ. Buchanan asserted that Harvard and the rest ofthe Ivy League need to "look more like America,"specifically critiquing the "overrepresentation"of Jewish and Asian-American students at Harvard.

"If proportional representation is the name ofthe game, Christian and European-Americans shouldget into the game, and demand their fair share ofevery pie: 75 percent, and no less," Buchananwrites.

Fitzsimmons emphasizes that Harvard doesn'tslice up pies. "Diversity is really much more of ameans to an end. You want people of all differentkinds of excellences," he says.

But even if Harvard won't admit it, attacks byBuchanan and others who hope to claim a piece of"diversity" for themselves threaten to damage thelegitimacy of Harvard admissions'community-building project.

The strategy--for now--seems to be yet anothershift in the language of the College'sself-proclaimed selectivity. The first pages ofthe admissions brochures from throughout the pastdecade show that the self-proclaimed "hallmarks"of the Harvard College experience have changedfrom "diversity" in 1991 to "distinction anddiversity" in 1994 to the "pursuit of excellence"in 1999.

The words may change, but Byerly Hall today isstill plagued by dilemmas of representation andinequality that began to be exposed duringLowell's leadership.

The problem of the 21st century will involvethe debate over who has access to the powergranted by a Harvard education--a question leftunanswered after Du Bois posed it nearly a centuryago.CRIMSONLAURA K. COBBADMISSIONS EXPERT: HEATHER C. CHANG '99,a student coordinator of the UndergraduateMinority Recruitment Program, also wrote herhonors thesis on race-based admissions.

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