Harvard has a unique Governance structure. Basically, it has two boards and no Senate. One of the two boards – the Board of Overseers – is composed entirely of Harvard alumni. It has thirty members and the membership turns over a bit each year with annual elections. This year’s annual election is a bit of a doozy.
Back in January, an alumni and businessman by the name of Ron Unz submitted a slate of candidates – which included consumer activist and former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader – on a “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” platform. His double-barreled manifesto, as its name implies, is to get Harvard first use some of its vast endowment to reduce tuition and second to move to a system of race-blind admissions.
What should we make of this?
Well, the first demand is ludicrous. 75% of Harvard graduates end up with no debt, either because they come from wealth and can afford the fees or have income sufficiently low that they received something close to a full ride (technically, Harvard doesn’t give a full-ride in the sense that a student will be expected to work a few hours a week no matter what, but it’s awfully close). In practice, for a family of 3 with no assets outside of housing and retirement funds, income needs to be about $150,000/year before the aid package drops below the level of tuition (you can play with Harvard’s net price calculator here. Pretty clearly then, making Harvard “free” genuinely would only benefit those with very high family income. And frankly why would anyone want to do that?
The second demand is trickier. The slate is making quite a bit of hay out of data that Asian-American students are being discriminated against in the application process. Unz himself wrote quite a fierce piece on this in 2012, which suggested that as far as Ivy League admissions are concerned, Asians are the “new Jews” – a reference to the fact that Ivies imposed much higher entrance requirements on Jews than gentiles prior to WWII so that the former did not swamp the latter and drive away all those nice WASPs to whom the Ivies were in fact beholden for fund raising (this story is told in excellent detail in Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, which is a history of admissions and the concept of merit at Ivy League schools). Unz in effect argues – and it is difficult to disagree with him, based on the evidence – that increasingly the group that is “paying” for affirmative action (that is, policies which give Black and Hispanic students preferential access to spots at Ivy League schools) is Asian-Americans, not whites.
There’s no doubt that Unz’s narrative is troubling (though it should be noted not all his claims appear to be factually correct). That said, his solution here is effectively to end affirmative action. Given the extent to which Harvard graduates dominate public life in the United States, ending affirmative action would have an enormous effect on the ability of Blacks and Hispanics to access some of the upper corridors of American society. Add that to the fact that Unz has in the past funded groups with some fairly unpleasant white supremacist associations, as well as sponsoring ballot initiatives against bilingual education, and you can see why some people think that behind Unz’ pre-occupation with fairness for Asian-Americans lie some much nastier anti-Black and anti-Hispanic prejudices.
The presence of the Unz slate has prompted the formation of an opposing “Coalition for a Diverse Harvard” slate, which is vigorously defending the current admissions system. The balloting is by mail, and results will be announced on May 26th. The results will be closely watched, particularly in a Presidential election year. If Harvard’s own alumni – a group which you’d think would be in the tank for the Democrats – votes against affirmative action and for spending more endowment money on the richest of the rich, it will cause some interesting ripples in the campaign. For that reason, I think it’s quite unlikely to come about, but then again I wouldn’t have guessed Ralph Nader would ally himself with this set of ideas, either.