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Unfinished Business

By Derek G. Xiao
By Harry R. Lewis, Contributing Opinion Writer
Harry R. Lewis ’68 is the Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science and a former dean of Harvard College.

“You will have the privilege of teaching some of the most promising students from the best schools in America,” I used to say at the new faculty orientation when I was dean of the College. “And also some of the most promising students from the worst schools in America.”

The outcome of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard leaves a great challenge: How to provide a quality education to students whose preparations differ greatly in quality. Compared with the last time Harvard admissions was before the Supreme Court, the best American high schools are better than ever and the worst have gotten worse — and Harvard is recruiting students from across the whole spectrum.

Harvard admissions will adjust to the end of racial affirmative action. It probably has already. The time when you could tell very much about students from their ethnicity has passed, so checkbox diversity has become a poor proxy for educational value added.

Indeed, to continue justifying the practice on the basis of the educational merits of a racially diverse student body — which was the basis of the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision upholding race-based preferences — is to put an unconscionable burden on minority students. It tells them, in effect, that they are expected to conform to stereotypes, to represent their group’s perspective on whatever subject is under discussion.

But race still plays a role in our lives here at Harvard, because we do not all live the same lives in America. A few years ago, a Black faculty colleague of mine was stopped by Boston police while running to catch a train — stopped simply for “running while Black.” No such thing has happened to me in eight decades of city living. In the classroom, this colleague was no different from me in any important way (except being smarter). But education is more than just academic instruction, and to some students, his presence was in important ways more meaningful than mine.

Harvard can and should be a place where race does not matter, but our country has a ways to go.

So how do we resolve this paradox? How do we maintain a community in which we can learn from others’ diverse experiences, without forcing any individual to be a model for an identity group?

I believe that admissions officers will do their job — judging applicants on the basis of what they have done with the opportunities that were available to them, rather than the absolute level they have reached.

I am less confident that we, the faculty, understand the challenge set out to us by having that diversity of backgrounds scattered through our classes. That is where the real work needs to be done.

Some curricular adjustments are relatively easy, like gateway courses, on-ramps where students from more modest high schools can catch up quickly to the level of their more advantaged peers. These should be priorities, but are often afterthoughts. Too few professors take joy in teaching math, or poetry, to eager but poorly schooled novices — because the system for hiring, promoting, and rewarding faculty does not motivate it. But some problems are more subtle.

Consider the plight of the humanities. Relative enrollment in humanities majors has shrunk as the student body has become more diverse. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are less likely to enroll in the humanities, perhaps reflecting expectations of what it means to be upwardly mobile. But it’s not that they dislike the humanities — they know less about the field, having in many cases attended under-resourced high schools with only the most utilitarian English curricula.

A Computer Science colleague from another institution recently told me that he had taught a course jointly with an English professor, and the course was dual-numbered between the two departments. At the first meeting the professors asked students to say a few words about what they wanted to get out of the course. One student said that she wanted to read literature — she picked this course because if she signed up for it under the Computer Science number, she could do so without having to answer questions back home about why she was wasting her time studying English. Then two other students acknowledged thinking the same thing. These students feel a different kind of pressure to conform to type.

Disadvantaged students have had a different American experience, one that profoundly affects their lives at Harvard. When I encourage students to take time off, either to scratch an entrepreneurial itch or to get their heads together when their motivation and performance flag, they are far more likely to take my advice seriously if they come from middle- or upper-class family backgrounds. No rich student ever told me, “But grandma would kill me if I dropped out of Harvard!”

The process of diversifying the student body will continue, perhaps changed as a result of the Supreme Court decision. A great challenge remains: What can Harvard do to free its educationally and socioeconomically disadvantaged students to have the life-changing experiences here that more advantaged students can choose without hesitation or guilt?

Harry R. Lewis ’68 is the Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science and a former dean of Harvard College.

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