What If Harvard Mattered Less?

What If Harvard Mattered Less?

Harvard University has committed $100 million to atone for the university’s ties to slavery from its inception in 1636, with current Harvard president Lawrence Bacow remarking after the publishing of a comprehensive report commissioned by the university that the university had “extensive entanglements with slavery.”

Indeed, enslaved persons served the administrators and faculty of Harvard, and wealth derived from slaveholding played a significant role in establishing what has become the richest university in the world with an endowment of greater than $40 billion.

On the one hand, this is welcome news and Harvard should be praised for taking affirmative steps to address the past. The eighty page report is an admirably thorough accounting of Harvard’s white supremacist past mixed with some additional material meant to remind us that this is not the first effort to grapple with this evil legacy.

On the other hand, as weighed against Harvard’s wealth, $100 million is not so much. While recent dips in the market have dinged the bottom line, the most recent fiscal year alone saw the endowment increase by $10 billion. 

The report’s recommendations range from the symbolic — memorializing the lives and contributions of enslaved people to Harvard — to the more substantive, developing leading curriculum that educates on the legacy of slavery and its continuing impacts. The report also proposes partnerships between Harvard and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which will bring students from HBCUs to study at Harvard.

The report also recommends direct restitution to the descendents of the enslaved persons whom Harvard has identified.

I will be honest, on balance, I am not that impressed when it comes to the substantive effect of what Harvard is proposing primarily because everything they’re proposing makes Harvard central to the process. This is not reparations so much as reputation laundering.

The report mentions nothing about undoing admissions policies that significantly favor legacy applicants and athletes, both of whom are overwhelmingly white. 

Meanwhile, Harvard just had its highest number of applicants and lowest admission rate in history. 

As reported by Inside Higher Ed, 61,220 hopefuls applied to Harvard with 1,954 being admitted. That number of applications is a record, 7 percent higher than last year. The admission rate of 3.19 percent is an all-time low.

But if you are a legacy student at Harvard, you have about a one-in-three shot at admission. It is hard to imagine a more direct benefit to white students, whose families have historically benefited from this troubled past (sometimes over multiple generations), than increasing your chances of admission from 3 in 100 to 1 in 3.

A genuine commitment to undoing the legacy of white supremacy would mean Harvard becoming less selective, more open, and more diverse. It would mean a commitment where students attending HBCUs have access to the kinds of resources students get at Harvard, without having to be invited over to Harvard to receive them.

Of course none of that is going to happen. The very nature of elite institutions is to self-perpetuate. Harvard appears open to letting a few new people in the door, but they’re going to continue to control the gates.

I recognize that I’m starting to sound like some kind of radical, so I want to make it clear that Harvard is under no obligation to do anything differently than what they’re already doing.

Why would Harvard unilaterally disarm during a battle they’re winning?

I simply think it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge what’s really going on with this particular game.

The reality is that there are thousands of excellent schools across the country where students can learn what they need to be prepared for whatever may come next. Increasing the resources for the places that are already serving students looking for an opportunity seems like a better path forward than waiting for Harvard to allow a few more people to trickle through its gates.