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Harvard: The Oldest Old Boys’ Club

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

It’s often thrown around — whether it be by well-meaning college admissions counselors or by students ditching their problem sets for parties on Friday nights — that you don’t go to Harvard just to study. Many enroll at the College seeking to make connections, to establish worthwhile contacts, and to rub shoulders with “the best and the brightest,” whomever they may be. Perhaps even more than the classes, a large draw of Harvard is the social network.

If Harvard seems like a networking opportunity first and an academic institution second for us now, we only have to look to the Harvard of the past to see the situation magnified tenfold. Citing a recent working paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research, journalist Jordan Weissmann characterizes the mid-to-late 20th century Harvard as “a glorified networking club for wealthy prep schoolers.” The paper itself investigates the intricate dynamic through which exclusive student clubs, especially final clubs, at Harvard shaped upward mobility; ultimately, it exposes that these organizations elevated students who were already wealthy and well-positioned, while failing to extend the same benefits to those of less advantaged backgrounds.

On the one hand, it’s uplifting to see real research being conducted on the involved and complex interplay between Harvard’s people and institutions. Harvard is so often depicted as a mysterious, almost magical place; this research helps to grapple with that narrative — to interrogate false notions, to help demystify the University, and to excavate the “ivory tower” of prestigious universities more generally.

Still, we also must acknowledge that — against the backdrop of Harvard's current social atmosphere — the paper’s depiction of Harvard’s past is not at all surprising to us.

Aggressive networking culture and socioeconomic stratification are very much alive and present at Harvard today. We all know students who are proud to chase connections first and comfort second; we all know fervent social climbers — those who are shamelessly dedicated to locking in early friendships with soon-to-be CEOs, future public office-holders, and potential trailblazers within Fortune 500 companies. We are also all aware of the disparities between the most and least privileged students at Harvard. We know about the social capital created by flaunting wealth; and conversely, we know about the wearying hurdles — from the social to the academic to the personal — that low-income students are continually forced to overcome.

To that end, this working paper simply grants theoretical meaning to experiential truths, providing Harvard’s most basic, time-tested realities clarity and confirmation.

Beyond that, the authors’ depiction of the exclusive and ostentatious nature of Harvard’s final clubs underscores the well-understood but oft-unspoken truth that privilege begets privilege — at Harvard and beyond. Indeed, on Harvard’s grounds, old friends from prestigious private high schools are seamlessly absorbed into the network, with established final club members sliding letters under the doors of well-connected freshmen. But the connections don’t end there; instead, as the NBER paper highlights, final clubs have historically served to line their members up with jobs in well-respected and high-paying companies. Such realities offer proof of the speculation that the networks final clubs bestow upon their members exist in a different stratosphere than that of the regular Harvard network. Troublingly, they also offer a testament to the mode through which the elite so often serve to exclusively fortify and uplift their own.

These realities become even more perturbing when compounded with the fundamental truth that Harvard students from non-privileged backgrounds struggle to access the basic advantages enjoyed by those groomed for elite status at Harvard. Even the word “networking” — whose inviting connotations imply that any individual can make new connections and thrive — is unintuitive for students who did not grow up in communities where networking is a well-established concept. From the outset, Harvard isn’t experienced equally, a reality cemented even before we all arrive here together.

Still, Harvard markets itself as an instrument of social mobility: a ladder that propels students to higher status post-college lives. To move forward productively, we must begin to interrogate such falsities; to be honest about how stratifications of wealth and class affect students’ capacity to wield the Harvard experience as a tool for social ascension; and to ultimately explore the modes through which we can level the playing field at Harvard.

Such explorations are by no means simple. Many of the University's related efforts, including past attempts to sanction exclusive social clubs, have plainly failed in the past. We must carefully probe the disparities experienced by students of diverse backgrounds, thoughtfully reckon with the inequities that continue to pervade our campus, and tirelessly seek new and creative ways to bridge the gaps between students with varying gradations of privilege.

Finally, we also find ourselves deeply concerned by the single measure of success — a high-paying career and a place among the elite of the elite — sold by exclusive final clubs and in some ways, bought into by this study. As a board, we disagree with the notion that a Harvard education must be geared towards the final goal of accumulating money and power.

Harvard was an old boys’ club in the 20th century, and this truth prevails today. Viewing our university as a subject of research rather than the institution producing research, for a change, may be the first step in making this club less exclusive.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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