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Since the founding of Harvard University 383 years ago, the school has come to represent the pinnacle of American higher education. Though founded before the founding of the United States, it has always been perceived — and perceived itself — as distinctly American and has even been referred to as “America’s university.” From the scope of its research to its outsized influence on the American political process to the makeup of its students, Harvard is thoroughly American.
Yet in the wake of prominent conversations about diversity taking place from the classroom to the courthouse, increasingly transnational issues such as climate change, and the detestable deportation of Ismail B. Ajjawi ’23, Harvard ought to reconsider its Americentrist position and firmly establish itself as an international university.
It is widely considered objectionable when Harvard and other universities have placed quotas or discriminated against certain minority or underprivileged groups in the admissions process, as as they have against Catholics, Jews, gay students, African-Americans, women, and is being accused of doing against Asian-Americans. Why do we not apply the same sort of outrage over the implicit cap of international students? International students have made up a consistent portion of College admits, and, according to some estimates, have an acceptance rate of 1.6 percent, nearly three times lower than the overall acceptance rate. Just as other sorts of quotas and double standards in admissions are rightly viewed as discriminatory and bigoted, why is the apparent quota of international students not deemed to be similarly xenophobic?
As others have noted, international applicants often face more hurdles in the application process, particularly for those who are less wealthy: a potential language barrier, lack of knowledge of the American university system, improper or insufficient counseling, a difficult visa application process, and tremendous hostility from the American government and president toward immigrants. Harvard should actively work to make it easier for international students to apply and to increase the proportion of international students in the College, in the name of both diversity and equality. Additionally, international students have to overcome social and academic barriers once at school. More should be done to help integrate them and ease their transition to living in the United States.
But doing so requires more than just changing admissions demographics. Harvard is in a distinctly privileged position and should use its role as a global leader in education and research in order to exert a global impact. Harvard has taken a key role in American politics in Washington and has admirably used its national standing to advocate on issues such as immigration, higher education, and climate change. It should take an equally active role across the world. From the refugee crisis to climate change to the role of NGOs and transnational corporations, contemporary politics are not confined to national borders and neither should Harvard’s activist role.
In understanding the extent of Harvard’s, and virtually all American schools’, Americentrism, consider how schools abroad handle these issues. The London School of Economics and Political Science, for example, is composed of nearly 70 percent of international students and Oxford is made up of 43 percent international students, whereas Harvard is only 21.1 percent international students. Of course, some of this is due to LSE’s and Oxford’s proximity to other European nations, but having a more geographically diverse student body, as well as a diverse faculty, allows for a wider range of experiences to be heard and allows for those universities to be more representative of the global population which it should serve. It also allows for its research to reach different parts of the world and be conducted by people from those places.
However, these changes ought to be seen as more than isolated steps to be more internationally-focused; they should be part of a broader reorientation of how Harvard views itself, whom it should serve, and the scope of its activism. Harvard College’s stated mission is to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders of our society.” In order to fully do so, it should commit to a more global outlook and one less Americentric.
Jacob A. Fortinsky ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Winthrop House.
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