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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Leave Behind (a) Legacy

By Daniel J. Hemel

At Harvard’s first Commencement ceremony in 1642, the nine graduates proved their proficiency in three ancient tongues with Latin and Greek orations as well as a “Hebrew Analysis Grammatical, Logicall and Rhetoricall of the Psalms.” According to Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, Class of 1908, the graduates and their guests retired to the mess hall at 11 a.m. for “plenty of good substantial food” washed down by barrels of the young College’s own beer. They then returned to the Yard for an afternoon of philosophical debate, and since Harvard was lacking in alumni, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were invited to join the disputations.

For the first time in recent memory, Harvard again has its own beer—a micro-brewed ale unveiled this year. But beyond that, today’s ceremony is utterly unlike its 17th-century precursor. There will be no debate among members of the Class of 2007. And alumni in the audience certainly won’t be asked for their views.

That’s a shame. These Commencement exercises are the largest single gathering of Harvard alumni each year. (Well, depending on the attendance at the Harvard-Yale football game, today may be the largest single gathering of uninebriated Harvard alumni each year.) Harvard is governed by its alumni; it is the alumni who (technically) elect the Board of Overseers, which (technically) controls the appointment of top University officials. Today is the one opportunity for the alumni—the real powers-that-be here at Harvard—to engage in a face-to-face discussion regarding the University’s direction. Inevitably, that opportunity will be squandered.

It’s particularly unfortunate because one of the University’s most controversial (and least defensible) policies is aimed at currying favor (and funds) from alumni. That policy, legacy preference, gives a tip in the admissions process to applicants whose parents attended Harvard. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, alumni children gain this advantage by the mere fact of being born. University officials say the legacy preference policy is meant to express gratitude toward alumni, who serve as interviewers for the admissions committee and who donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Harvard each year. But Harvard has never asked its alumni whether they support such a policy. My guess is that many—perhaps most—do not.

Of course, I can’t say that for sure. Though today’s afternoon exercises are (technically) “the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association,” don’t expect an open-forum “town meeting” out of New England’s Puritan past. On matters of import, “Analysis Grammatical, Logicall and Rhetoricall” is relegated to English-language newsprint.

Harvard’s rhetoric regarding legacy is illogical (though, to its credit, grammatical). On the one hand, University officials argue that “legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is,” as then-President Lawrence H. Summers phrased the party line. According to this logic, alumni are more likely to contribute to their alma mater (financially and otherwise) if their children are admitted to Harvard. For a long time, I myself found this argument compelling. My parents are not Harvard degree-holders, but I have benefited from scholarship funds established by alumni whose progeny matriculated here. Perhaps those alums wouldn’t have donated if their daughters and sons had been rejected by Byerly Hall. And, so the logic goes, the University is richer on account of its legacy policy.

Yet, on the other hand, the University argues that legacy preference confers only a slight advantage on alumni children. Harvard’s admissions director, Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73, describes legacy preference as “a feather on the scale if all else is equal.” By this logic, the vast majority of legacies would have been admitted on their own achievements regardless of the policy. But if that’s true, the vast majority of alumni parents would have donated regardless of whether such a policy were in place. If legacy is a “feather,” it’s a superfluous one.

I, for one, believe that most legacies here are, if anything, overqualified. Perhaps gullibly, I believe McGrath Lewis when she says that legacy preference is a mere “feather on the scale.” But it’s a feather that looms large in the public imagination. Even The Economist—not known for populist pandering—has charged that under legacy preference policies, “the students in America’s places of higher education are increasingly becoming an oligarchy.” The magazine continues: “This is sad in itself, but even sadder when you consider the extraordinary role that the same universities—particularly…Harvard—played in promoting meritocracy in the first half of the 20th century.” The legacy “feather,” then, is a public-relations blunder of Summers-esque proportions. It casts a shadow upon Harvard’s sincere commitment to meritocracy. Why would alumni want to see their alma mater dragged through the mud on account of a policy with such marginal practical benefit?

Worse yet is the documented effect of the legacy preference policy on alumni children themselves. Georgetown University psychologist Deborah Perlman has observed that many legacy students suffer feelings of “self-doubt” as they wonder whether they were admitted because of their lineage or because of their own accomplishments. Why would alumni parents want to see their children endure these feelings—especially if they almost certainly would have been admitted on merit alone?

For many alumni here today, ties to Harvard are thicker than blood. And it’s insulting to suggest—as the University’s own rhetoric does—that their motives for contributing to Harvard are as crass as wanting to marginally improve their children’s admissions odds. Today I’ll toss my cap into the air and join the ranks of Harvard alumni—and I too will take offense at the University’s underestimation of my commitment to my alma mater. I can only hope that the University’s top officials—who, after all, are (technically) selected by the alumni—will join in the tossing motion and throw the legacy “feather” to the wind.

Daniel J. Hemel ’07, a social studies concentrator in Lowell House, was managing editor of The Crimson in 2006. An earlier version of this op-ed in speech form was rejected by the faculty committee in charge of choosing commencement day orations.

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