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Fear and Self-Loathing

I come to bury transfer admissions, not to praise them

By Adam Goldenberg, None

Members of the classes of 2009 and 2010, you’re it. When, late last month, Harvard’s admissions office pulled the plug on undergraduate transfer admissions for the next two years, it extinguished the possibility of future fresh faces for current sophomores and juniors. Tragic, perhaps, but apparently necessary, thanks to a campus-wide housing crunch. The overstuffed entering classes of recent years created a bubble that was sure to burst, and burst it did; thousands of would-be transfers’ dreams of ivy-encrusted greatness have been dashed.

The response, from some corners of campus at least, has been outrage. (At Harvard, whenever grievances are concerned, one must necessarily ignore the thousands of undergraduates who don’t give a damn.) This newspaper derided the move as “misguided and rash,” while unrequited applicants bemoaned an “unfair” and “heartbreaking” decision.

Applicants’ disappointment is entirely reasonable. They spent the time and money compiling a compelling application, never thinking that it might be doomed to languish, unread and in pieces, in a Harvard bureaucrat’s shredder. That sucks.

Axing transfer admissions has created a surfeit of sob stories, most of which ought to be neither trivialized nor ignored. But at the end of the day, the outrage from current Harvard students has been somewhat surprising. After all, it was out of attentiveness to undergraduates’ direct personal interests that the administration made the decision to banish transfers. Just three days prior to the move, rising seniors in Winthrop House had been casually informed that, thanks to a looming Malthusian crisis, the cushy senior suites they’d be expecting would be replaced by bunk beds and partitioned common rooms. The Crimson lamented this “surprise” as both “shocking” and “demoralizing.”

There aren’t enough beds for upperclassmen to begin with. As Cabot House Master Jay M. Harris told The Crimson, “every House is above capacity, there wasn’t an inch of space.” Adding transfer students only stands to compound a problem that has, in the words of The Crimson Staff, already caused the “unprecedented breaking of an unspoken pact that leaves the Class of 2009 feeling at worst, cheated and at best, ignored.” Space constraints have become “a matter of mental health.”

Yet just days after decrying the betrayal of the class of 2009, voices across Harvard’s campus changed their tune. If the previously-estimated “mere” 40 transfer admits for 2008-2009 were only just “accepted and spread out across all 12 houses,” this newspaper wrote, “the additional space constraints per house would be minimal.” (It is unclear whether or not they would also be “demoralizing.”) Other editorial writers demanded that Harvard “disclose some more compelling reasons” for a decision whose consequences are so “potentially life altering.”

The incongruity between undergraduate opinion on the consequences of the housing crunch and the decision to suspend transfer admissions is striking. Our self-interest demands that the College accept as few new upperclassmen as possible, at least until the great floods of ‘09 and ‘10 subside, so that there’s more room for us. Why, then, have some undergraduates been so quick to rush to the defense of this year’s aborted transfer applications?

Opposition is wrapped up in a deep sense of moral rectitude about the process by which the decisions were made and then communicated to applicants. If only the College had made up its mind sooner, then perhaps the time, energy, and money that applicants put into their application might not have been wasted. Opponents cite the costs of re-taking standardized tests and ordering transcripts, which won’t be recouped by prospective transfers, even though Harvard has agreed to refund the full application fee.

Undergraduates have also argued that the ultimate loser in this situation will be the College itself. Potential Harvardians who have “made different educational decisions”—by attending a community or 2-year college, for instance—will be excluded for as long as transfer admissions remain on hiatus. Choking off the flow of late-arrivals will, as one writer lamented, cheat Harvard of a much-needed supply of “congenial, self-satisfied enrollees more interested in making friends than meeting recruiters,” a group underrepresented among four-year Harvard undergrads.

Behind these sentiments lurks the endemic self-loathing that subtly defines many Harvard students’ view of their own success in the college admissions cockfight. We are selfish when it comes to rooming and selfless on the subject of transfer admissions because we’re embarrassed to be among higher education’s Elect, the less-than-ten percent of the applicant pool that did the impossible and got into Harvard.

Our embarrassment of riches is a cornerstone of Harvard culture; we don’t wear insignia clothing, we expertly understate our own talents and accomplishments, sometimes to excess, and we’re only ever keen to admit that we go to Harvard—“drop the H-bomb,” that is—when we’re trying to pick someone up at a bar. (It works. Sometimes.) Of course, we’re deeply (but secretly) pleased every time the Harvard admissions rate loses a point or two—we’re only human, after all. But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, we think that the whole charade of Harvard admissions is a wicked crap-shoot, that denying 93 percent of (presumably) well-qualified applicants the chance at a Harvard education is sinister, and that we need all the transfer students we can get.

The admissions-housing trade-off is a clear but unfortunate one. Thanks to Harvard’s residential ethos, if someone gets in, they get a place to sleep. As a consequence, we can’t have it both ways—these days, when having one’s own single is fast becoming an unattainable dream, every new transfer is a reason why Winthrop seniors will be living in common rooms and Dunster residents will continue to live in closets. And though making a show of our insecurities about our own success is certainly endearing, current undergraduates might forgive themselves a little bit of selfishness where personal space is concerned, at least.

Adam Goldenberg ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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