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The Myth of Meritocratic Admissions at Harvard

By Daniel J. Kenny, Contributing Opinion Writer

The Trump administration’s Justice Department will investigate whether Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants, focusing on a complaint filed by 64 Asian American groups who charge that the University unlawfully considers race in admissions. Harvard also faces a similar lawsuit led by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, who helped Abigail Fisher unsuccessfully challenge the University of Texas’s race-conscious admissions policy before the Supreme Court.

Some critics have pointed out that Blum strategically recruited Asian American plaintiffs after losing the Fisher case so that he could re-litigate his complaint that affirmative action policies unfairly discriminate against white applicants who have the same or similar qualifications as non-white applicants. This time the case centers on Asian American applicants, but in one crucial way the song remains the same: Critical to the argument is the implication that Harvard rewards, or should reward, the most talented applicants.

But if you think Harvard is a meritocracy, I have news for you: It is not, and has never been. This notion is a sham—a myth fabricated to make Harvard students feel that everyone has earned their spot here on their own merit. The truth is that, if you are born to parents who went to Harvard or who can donate large sums of money to the University, you get a leg up.

Near the top of the Trump administration itself sits the perfect example: Jared Kushner ’03, senior adviser to the president. In a popular article about Kushner’s admission to Harvard, ProPublica’s Daniel Golden argues that “the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations.” The claim seems to hold up in Kushner’s case. His father, Charles Kushner, pledged to donate $2.5 million to Harvard in 1998, a year before Jared Kushner––supposedly a mediocre student in high school––matriculated here. The elder Kushner also met with then-Harvard President Neil Rudenstine to discuss funding a new scholarship. One does not need to have a particularly vivid imagination to think, at least tacitly, that his son’s application came up in conversation.

Charles Kushner is not a Harvard alumnus. But he donated a lot of money to Harvard, and his son was admitted the next year. Ostensibly, Harvard does not prefer the children of wealthy donors in the admissions process. They do claim that the children of alumni “may receive an additional look,” but they do not claim that the children of outside donors get the same special consideration. If Harvard granted this preference outright, it would be tantamount to allowing applicants to purchase a spot. But Harvard allows this to happen with a wink and a nudge, because that’s the way it works.

The meritocratic admissions process that conservatives are defending doesn’t exist. Under President Derek Bok, Harvard established what would become the gold standard of race-conscious admissions. Conservatives like Blum think that this admissions process makes a mockery of meritocracy. But if they focused their attention on cases like Kushner’s, they would find the true injustice. Wealthy donors should not be de facto allowed to buy their children’s admittance, and legacy applicants should receive no special preference.

All of this is not to say that Harvard should be a true meritocracy based purely on high test scores or number of extracurriculars. Its race-conscious admissions process evaluates students holistically, and seeks to build a diverse student body for everyone’s benefit. But amidst a decades-long effort to boost the admittance of disadvantaged minorities, low-income applicants, and first-generation college students, Harvard still prefers legacy applicants and the children of wealthy donors. This is the basic unfairness that Harvard has yet to correct.

My high school guidance counselor once told me that, when it comes to admissions to a school like Harvard, “It’s who you know, not what you know.” At the time, I thought my successful application refuted his old adage. But the adage remains as true as ever, and as long as it does, there is nothing resembling a meritocracy at Harvard for anti-affirmative action activists to defend.

Daniel J. Kenny ’18 is a Government concentrator in Winthrop House.

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