‘Last One Standing’: William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, the Keeper of Harvard’s Gates

By Matan H. Josephy, Crimson Staff Writer
By Sami E. Turner

William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Harvard College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, sat unfazed as he watched his legacy of half a century take blow after blow at the Supreme Court.

Eight years of litigation over Harvard’s use of race in its admissions process had finally brought the University to Washington, D.C., face-to-face with the most conservative court in decades — a court almost certain to shatter the longstanding status quo of race-conscious admissions.

In the years since anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions first sued Harvard in 2014, alleging discrimination against Asian-Americans in the College’s consideration of race in admissions, University officials had sat through days of demanding testimony, while Harvard was forced to release of hundreds of thousands of internal documents and endure nonstop media coverage.

And so, the black box on Brattle Street began to crack.

Fitzsimmons — alongside the rest of Harvard’s top brass — arrived at the Supreme Court in Oct. 2022. He watched oral arguments in person, sitting alongside the likes of former Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and William F. Lee ’72, former Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.

But Fitzsimmons, who served for decades as chief architect of Harvard’s admissions program, was optimistic.

As the group returned to the airport, Fitzsimmons turned to Lee and said “I’m excited.”

“'We have a job to do,'” Lee — who represented Harvard through much of the case’s trial stages — said Fitzsimmons told him, as it became clearer than ever that Harvard would lose. “We’ll get it done.”

‘Pull Back the Curtain’

The longtime keeper of Harvard’s gates began working in the admissions office in 1972 before ascending to the deanship 14 years later.

Under his watch, Harvard has admitted tens of thousands of students, including some of its most prominent. From Natalie Portman ’03 and Neil deGrasse Tyson ’80 to Chief Justice John G. Roberts ’76 and interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76, Fitzsimmons is the longtime architect of the modern-day Harvard admissions process.

Central to that effort was affirmative action.

He had long played a vital role within a vast, University-wide effort to fight for the survival of the practice as it faced a series of legal challenges across the United States over the course of five decades.

Race-conscious admissions policies, in their modern form, trace their roots at the College to the early 1970s. The ‘Harvard Plan,’ as it came to be known, employed both expanded recruitment efforts and the consideration of race within admissions deliberations in an effort to bolster the diversity — racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, or otherwise — of Harvard’s admitted undergraduate classes.

The program, at the time, received praise from the Supreme Court. Harvard’s race-conscious processes were cited as a national model in the landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which maintained the constitutionality of such admissions practices.

As dean, Fitzsimmons would preserve and reinforce the College’s commitment to racial diversity.

In 2014, however, that process came under fatal attack. SFFA’s initial complaint, filed in Nov. of that year, alleged that Harvard employed “racially and ethnically discriminatory policies” in its undergraduate admissions, violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and called for a court-imposed ban on the College using race as a factor in its admissions and admissions officers viewing the race of applicants.

“We both felt a deep commitment to affirmative action and the kinds of transformations in the student body that it had enabled,” Faust — who served as Harvard President from 2007 to 2018 — said in an interview with The Crimson. This made the lawsuit one that was “very much worth fighting,” she said.

Harvard's long-serving Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 (far right) exits the courthouse during the admissions trial.
Harvard's long-serving Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 (far right) exits the courthouse during the admissions trial. By Caleb D. Schwartz

Still, the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin — in which it ruled in favor of the UT’s use of race-conscious admissions practices — injected further confidence into the University’s leadership that Harvard’s effort to fend off SFFA’s challenge might succeed.

Lee said that in 2014, after Fisher, Harvard “felt pretty good about where we were.” But the 2018 retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy — the swing vote in Fisher — and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020 led to a firmly 6-3 conservative majority.

“We went from a point of being uncertain, to being cautiously optimistic, to being pessimistic,” Lee said.

Harvard would fight initial attempts to take the case to trial. Eventually, though, Fitzsimmons decided — in coordination with Faust and Harvard’s then-General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83 — to let the case proceed to trial.

“That was a big decision, because — with one exception — all of the other affirmative action cases the Supreme Court had decided had been decided on paper records without a trial,” Lee said. “We would pull back the curtain on everything that happened during admissions.”

Fitzsimmons’s view was, “We think we’re doing what’s right, what’s constitutional,” Lee said. “And if we are, the court will tell us we are and if we’re not, that we should change and adjust.”

The decision, in part a product of the faith Harvard officials — including Fitzsimmons — had in the admissions process, would open Harvard’s top-secret admissions process to unprecedented levels of public scrutiny. For three weeks, Fitzsimmons, Faust, Khurana, and others would testify in defense of Harvard’s admissions process.

“That decision was a very important decision,” Lee said.

‘Make Harvard Accessible’

Harvard emerged from the district court trial victorious, and the University was handed a second win in 2020 by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals before its loss at the Supreme Court in the summer of 2023.

But while Harvard’s race-conscious policies were overturned, many who know him paint Fitzsimmons’ lasting impact on the University as one defined by far more than just affirmative action.

Rather, his peers say that it is the titanic shift in the diversity of the College — enacted in large part throughout his time at the admission office’s helm — that will outlast him.

From left, former Harvard President Drew G. Faust, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and former Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee '72 exit the Supreme Court on Monday.
From left, former Harvard President Drew G. Faust, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and former Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee '72 exit the Supreme Court on Monday. By Julian J. Giordano

His five-decade-long tenure has been characterized by an aggressive expansion of outreach and an explosion in undergraduate financial aid — both personally important to Fitzsimmons, who often references his status as a first-generation college student on a scholarship.

Thomas A. Dingman ’67, a former Dean of Freshmen and Fitzsimmons’s Harvard classmate, said that his commitment to expanding the diversity of Harvard’s student body began shortly after he started working in the admissions office in the 1970s.

“He worked feverishly to get out to areas that were underserved,” Dingman, who worked closely with Fitzsimmons throughout his time at Harvard, said. “He was not content simply to keep drawing from the schools that were considered, over time, ‘feeder schools.’”

“He wanted, very much, to make Harvard accessible internationally, and to groups that were underrepresented,” he added.

Fitzsimmons has also centered recruitment and outreach as dean, enlarging and diversifying Harvard’s applicant pool. Harvard has partnered with universities across the country — such as Wellesley College, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia, Georgetown University, and others — to aggressively conduct outreach and recruitment events.

Such efforts typically involve Fitzsimmons, alongside other representatives from Harvard, traveling across the country, meeting with high school guidance counselors alongside students and parents potentially interested in Harvard.

“You can imagine how popular Harvard is with a group of a couple thousand guests,” Greg Warren, dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Virginia who has regularly traveled with Fitzsimmons, said. “He is immediately swarmed by families and students.”

“And, inevitably, he’s the last one standing,” Warren added.

In December, Harvard announced it had joined the Small Town Outreach, Recruitment, and Yield consortium, a group of universities working to bolster applications from rural areas.

“We have the pedal to the metal, in terms of outreach,” Fitzsimmons told The Crimson.

The College’s financial aid has also dramatically expanded in the years Fitzsimmons has helmed the department.

It was under his watch that, in 2004, then-President Lawrence H. Summers launched the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, making Harvard free for those with household incomes under $40,000 and greatly increasing financial assistance for students whose families earned above that threshold.

Expansion continued throughout the 2000s, with rapid growth dating back to 2007. Even throughout the financial crisis of 2008, the College managed to expand its student assistance. In 2023, Harvard announced a second consecutive raise to the income threshold at which families pay nothing to attend.

The growth, though, came with skyrocketing costs of attendance. Tuition for the 2003-2004 academic term, the same year that the Financial Aid Initiative was announced, numbered $26,066. By 2023-24, that figure had ballooned to $69,300.

The change in Harvard’s demographic statistics since Fitzsimmons took charge of the admissions office, though, are stark.

The number of African American students admitted to Harvard hovered at around 100 from 1969 to 1971. In 1972, when Fitzsimmons joined the admissions office, the African American population was 88.

By the Class of 2026, admitted exactly half a century after Fitzsimmons began his work, that number had grown to over 300.

Former University president Lawrence S. Bacow — who served through much of Harvard’s litigation with SFFA — praised Fitzsimmons’ efforts in an emailed statement to The Crimson.

“Our student body is far more diverse today in every possible dimension — ethnically, religiously, geographically, socio-economically — than it was when Bill first started working here,” Bacow wrote. “Bill, and the Admissions Deans who preceded him, have played critical roles in bringing about these changes.”

‘Welcoming of Transparency’

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, Harvard admissions enters territory without recent precedent. The process has evolved radically and rapidly in response to the Court’s ruling.

Harvard's admissions office is located at 86 Brattle St, Cambridge.
Harvard's admissions office is located at 86 Brattle St, Cambridge. By Marina Qu

In August, Harvard unveiled an overhauled application, replacing its longstanding essays with smaller, short-answer questions. Then, just weeks after releasing admissions decisions for the Class of 2028 in March, the College announced a shock reversal of its previous commitment to remain test-optional for two more years, requiring all future applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores.

Simultaneously, the impact of the Court’s ruling on Harvard’s results remains unclear. Demographic data of the Class of 2028 — typically sent alongside decisions in the spring — is yet to be released. The College also remains under congressional investigation, now for its use of legacy and donor preferences in admissions, ensuring that governmental scrutiny of its admissions processes will continue.

Fitzsimmons, though, remains a constant presence. The 79-year-old administrator, now in his 38th year as dean, shows little indication that retirement is on the horizon, routinely telling The Crimson that he has no imminent plans to depart the job that has defined his life.

Still, some changes appear even beyond immediate policy. In contrast to the admissions office’s furtive past, Fitzsimmons now welcomes — even lauds — the spotlight that the last several years have brought to his work. As Harvard’s peer schools begin to hide their acceptance rates, Fitzsimmons has insisted Harvard will continue to release its admissions data.

“We are beyond welcoming transparency,” he said in an interview with The Crimson. “Because the more transparency there is, the better it is for us to get excellence from everywhere.”

—Staff writer Elyse C. Goncalves contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Matan H. Josephy can be reached matan.josephy@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @matanjosephy.

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