Free/Fair? Or, A Somewhat Bizarre Request to Fellow Harvard Alums

11 minute read


Hey, fellow Harvard alums: This year, when you get a ballot for the Harvard Board of Overseers Election in the snail-mail, instead of throwing it away without looking at it: don’t. Instead: vote.

The Board of Overseers is a group of 30 individuals each serving 8-year terms. Harvard says:

Drawing on the wide-ranging experience and expertise of its members, the Board exerts broad influence over the University's strategic directions, provides counsel to the University leadership on priorities and plans, and has the power of consent to certain actions of the Corporation.

The “Corporation” is the president and fellows, who approve the university budget, major capital projects, endowment spending and tuition charges, etc. The board is elected by anyone with a Harvard degree who actually votes on those ballots they send to us every year that we then throw out.

This year, there is a slate of 5 individuals running on a platform they’ve dubbed “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard.” It’s confusing for approximately 155 reasons, not the least of which being that it includes Ralph Nader. On face, they argue for the following:

  1. Increased use of endowment income to make Harvard more accessible
  2. More transparency in Harvard admissions

Plank 1: they want to eliminate tuition.  This is the major point of coverage in the popular media.  The argument is: (A) Harvard can afford it, (B) doing so would increase access and applicant diversity, because students from under-represented socio-economic groups would be more likely to apply, and (C) eliminating tuition would have wide-reaching social effects by spreading to other institutions.

(A) is mostly false. Endowments aren’t liquid. The endowment is not a checking account, and the size of the endowment/return is not indicative of the amount of money available for tuition support. (I acknowledge the lack of objectivity on the part of the University spokesperson, but it’s still true.) Yes, the University should restructure the endowment to free up more money for tuition support and outright reduce tuition, and elicit donations just for this purpose. But: that’s not the same as using endowment returns to make Harvard free, overnight.

(B) is almost certainly true.

(C) is unlikely. The potential impact is limited to schools with sufficient resources to do the same, of which there are only a handful. Offhand (based on no information) just lowering tuition might have more impact, because it’s more realistic for other schools to follow while still being a legitimate kick to the system (fun fact: scholarship dollars spent is a factor in USN&W’s algorithms, so raising tuition and scholarships simultaneously is good for rankings).

Increasing access and encouraging the underrepresented to apply are awesome goals. Current stated tuition is obscene. It was obscene when I attended, and it’s worse now.

That said: Why on Earth should Harvard be free for everyone? It’s often reasonable to exchange money for services.  More than 30% of the class of 2019 comes from families making more than $250k a year.  Even though the financial aid office certainly makes strange need calculations at the boundaries, I’m willing to bet that many students supported by families making >= $250k/year can afford to pay some amount of money for their Harvard educations.

On the one hand, this is a chicken/egg problem: if there were greater access, less of the Freshman class would be so wealthy. On the other hand, it’s total overkill: It makes a Harvard education free for people who don’t need it to be, to solve what is effectively a marketing problem. Instead, Harvard could spend that money on reducing tuition overall, performing aggressive outreach, and ensuring that students from underserved populations are able to take full, effective advantage of their Harvard educations.

Plank 2: is more complicated: “more transparency in admissions.”

(I’ve found it difficult to write about this in a brief or linear fashion, so I’m trying to scope my remarks, with sadly limited success.)

First, note that comments from the slate tie this plank into a call to end legacy preferences (this is apparently Nader’s concern, though I can only find second-hand quotes from him on it), which would be awesome.  Legacy is ridiculous, a fact that is so obviously true I won’t bother citing it. However, based on no information, it’s not clear to me how Harvard can both maintain the alumni giving network that sustains the endowment without an implicit/explicit understanding about legacy.  This sounds awesome on paper but is probably impossible and not the real point anyway.

Back to that real point: At a high level, “more transparency in admissions” is related to evidence that Harvard and other elite schools discriminate against Asian and Asian American candidates. Unz says this outright, and his language exactly matches that of the plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against the university demanding admissions transparency and asserting discrimination against Asian applicants.  Various members of the slate are involved in some way in that lawsuit.  This is a legitimate concern, or at least the evidence that substantiates it is pretty compelling (Unz’s link to the Economist summarizing the claim is broken, but you can find some summary data on his Free and Fair blog post).

Indeed, if discrimination were the only concern, I wouldn’t be so alarmed. But the evidence suggests that it’s not the only issue at stake. Additional fuel for this suspicion comes a bit sideways, but consider the way the campaign tries to explain the combination of planks via the NYTimes:

If Harvard omits tuition fees, more highly qualified students from all strata of the society will find opportunity to apply. Similarly, the university authority will find ease in balancing classes for racial or ethnic diversity and the Asian- Americans won't lose out.

Uh…what? The conclusion only follows if Harvard were discriminating against Asian applicants because of a lack of socio-economically diverse applicants. I’m not saying it’s OK to discriminate against Asian/Asian-American applicants, but rather that there’s no obvious connection between that discrimination and a homogenous applicant pool. Increasing access and pool diversity can’t help on its own, because the two thoughts are disconnected. Either the candidates are stupid (unlikely), or something else is going on.

Going with the latter: With the exception of Nader, the public intellectual history of the candidates demonstrates strong opposition to affirmative action/consideration of diversity in college admissions. I’ll just give immediate and obvious evidence to that effect, in the interest of (dubious) brevity:

  • Unz writes in an article on The American Conservative:
    Conservatives have denounced “affirmative action” policies which emphasize race over academic merit, and thereby lead to the enrollment of lesser qualified blacks and Hispanics over their more qualified white and Asian competitors; they argue that our elite institutions should be color-blind and race-neutral. Meanwhile, liberals have countered that the student body of these institutions should “look like America,” at least approximately, and that ethnic and racial diversity intrinsically provide important educational benefits, at least if all admitted students are reasonably qualified and able to do the work. My own position has always been strongly in the former camp, supporting meritocracy over diversity in elite admissions. But based on the detailed evidence I have discussed above, it appears that both these ideological values have gradually been overwhelmed and replaced by the influence of corruption and ethnic favoritism, thereby selecting future American elites which are not meritocratic nor diverse, neither being drawn from our most able students nor reasonably reflecting the general American population.
    I could unpack that paragraph for days, but instead I'll just assert the obvious: Ron Unz doesn't like affirmative action. Which I refuse to scare quote even though he does.
  • Lee Cheng filed a brief in Fisher v. UT Austin supporting the challenge to the UT's system, arguing against taking race into account in admissions decision making in almost all cases.
  • Stuart Taylor Jr. is the author of "Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It." Which is exactly what it sounds like.
  • Stephen Hsu, who gets my non-sarcastic vote as the most reasonable of the non-Nader bunch, has argued repeatedly for "Merit, not Race in College Admissions".  I tangent on merit below.

Regardless of the stated platform, evidence in the form of their actions and writings in other forums suggests that these candidates are strongly anti-affirmative action/admissions diversity consideration.  Their calls for transparency in admissions are closely linked both intellectually and legally to their challenges to the use of race in admissions in this and other contexts.  Although aspects of the current admissions process are legitimately problematic, swinging to the other extreme that these candidates have advocated in many other places is probably a bad move.

However, even if they truly only want transparency and are not setting out to end diversity considerations in admissions, or even if I agreed with that goal, I still wouldn’t vote for them. Here’s why: Unz in particular has strongly intimated that he seeks to to enact dramatic, destabilizing change from a position on the board.  An overactive/radical board is basically the worst possible way to run a university.  In a stance that is admittedly influenced by my position as a faculty member at a major academic institution (and a UVA grad), I believe that shared governance, consensus building, and careful, nuanced  reasoning by conscientious people is a much healthier way to enact change in the university environment than a few angry bros dictating from on high how Harvard should do anything.  To be honest, I also don’t mind grass-roots revolution; I’m just opposed to the “angry bros on high” model

Executive summary: the Free Harvard, Fair Harvard slate is advocating free admission and more transparency in Harvard admissions. Free admission is impossible and also stupid, and the “transparency” claim is very likely a smokescreen for vehemently anti-affirmative action/diversity agenda. Even if it’s not (or even if it is and you think they’re right), the slate is advocating for destabilizing change to come from the Overseers, which is no way to run a university. Thus, I advocate that you vote for someone else in the upcoming board election.  Or, educate yourself and decide you disagree with me and vote for them anyway, but regardless: vote.  And either way, don’t be misled by Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot.

A meritocratic aside: “Meritocracy” makes my skin crawl because tl;dr Silicon Valley Dudebros.  But skin crawlies is no basis for policy, so: Hsu advocates in the above-linked NYTimes article for a “strictly meritocratic” admissions model based strictly on GPA and SAT scores.  On it’s own, though, merit just means “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” (google define: merit). Why that means “grades and test scores and nothing else” eludes me.  Admissions based on scores certainly is more objective than any “holistic” approach, but objectivity isn’t intrinsically praiseworthy.  Consider the following alternative admissions policy: admit all applicants above 5’10”; reject everyone else. This is very objective, but probably not the best way to admit a Harvard class.  Similarly, test scores do provide a more objective metric than many other factors, but that doesn’t make them more fair or a better way to assess merit than anything else. They just reward/are correlated with a different set of factors. For example, SAT scores are strongly correlated with socioeconomic status. As are grades, number of AP tests taken, ACT scores, etc (and height, actually.  And height is also strongly correlated with success! So maybe they should only admit tall people?).

This is a deeply complicated issue that gets into what kinds of students Harvard should admit and how they should be evaluated, and what kinds of graduates Harvard wants to produce (Stephen Pinker weighed in a couple of years ago). But this is probably best left to another post.  Suffice to say: discrimination is bad, but it’s fallacious on face to equate merit with just scores.  And also, neither the ENS model (which Hsu advocates) nor the resulting insane testing culture that dominates the French HS experience is necessarily to be aspired to.

**As usual, all opinions expressed here are my own and should not be considered representative of the opinions of my employer, spouse, neighborhood, family, dog, etc.  Wish I could figure out how to put this at the bottom of every post automagically, but so it goes.