The Underside Of The Ivies
Ever wonder what it takes to get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton? Do the happy few who win higher education's golden ticket get in because of SAT scores or extracurriculars--or is it because Dad donated a building? Are the Big Three really academic meritocracies? Have they ever been? These are the questions University of California-Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel sets out to answer in his new book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton . Karabel, himself a 1972 Harvard grad, is already garnering high praise for pulling back the veil on the Big Three's at times problematic past (anti-Semitic policies, rampant anti-intellectualism, the exclusion of women and minorities) and for offering a sweeping 100-year retrospective on who has gotten into the Ivy giants, who has not, and why.
You spent much of the 1990s fighting a losing battle for the preservation of affirmative action policies at Berkeley. What made you write a 720-page history of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale?
I thought some historical perspective was needed. I wanted to call into question the notion that admissions, historically, had been done meritocratically, that somehow affirmative action was some violation of what had been a previously meritocratic system. I also wanted to question our notions of what merit was and to show how they had changed.
How have notions of merit changed in the past hundred years?
The first definition of merit was basically academic, with a heavy emphasis on the mastery of a particular curriculum that involved Latin and Greek. That's the pre-1920s definition. That was superseded by the definition of the all-around man of good character and good background. That in turn was succeeded by a definition, becoming prominent in the late 1950s in the context of the Cold War and Sputnik, of the intellectually gifted applicants with high test scores and specialized extracurricular excellence--the shift from the all-around man to the all-around class. Finally, during the 1960s and in the context of new social movements, merit was redefined to include diversity and inclusion.
That first change is perhaps the most surprising: Why did administrators decide to abandon purely academic considerations?
If you go back to early in the 20th century, the exam-based system we had was very similar to the systems of other countries. But when the "wrong people" --that is, the people deemed socially undesirable--started to pass the exam, administrators decided that this exam system was no longer viable. The question then became: On what basis would people be admitted to this limited freshman class? When these schools decided to introduce nonacademic criteria and weigh them heavily, it was one of the turning points in the history of American higher education.
You write that by emphasizing subjective traits like "character" and "manly vigor" over academic excellence, administrators were really trying to reduce the number of Jewish students on campus.
Columbia imposed the first quota in 1921, cutting Jewish enrollment from around 40 percent to 22 percent. Yale and Princeton followed in 1924, and Harvard in 1926. It wasn't until the social movements of the 1960s that Jews were able to apply and be admitted on an equal basis.
Yet you seem to relish the irony that admissions policies initially designed to exclude a campus minority are now being used to include minorities.
I want to emphasize that the discretion and the opacity that were put into place in the 1920s, though used then for discriminatory purposes, can also be used for purposes of social inclusion.
Today, the Big Three say they're committed to using these more subjective admissions tools to admit more African-Americans and Latinos. But you argue that they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the affirmative action era.
I used to think the moral claims of the civil rights movement were so compelling that they were the source of affirmative action. But what I found in the course of the research was that the sharp increases in the enrollment of African-American students occurred only after the huge social unrest of the late 1960s, which climaxed in the riots in over 100 cities in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination.
And which, you suggest, scared the Ivies into action. In 1969, one year after King was shot, the number of black admits at the Big Three jumped 89 percent. Critics have argued ever since that the Ivies and other elite schools lower their academic standards to admit more minority students--and that this hurts the schools by making them less meritocratic.
These institutions have not ever been meritocracies, and to this day they are not pure meritocracies. They still practice various forms of affirmative action for the privileged, including preferences for alumni children. I think when deviations from particular definitions of merit are used for purposes of social inclusion rather than social exclusion, it's hard to identify them as just the contemporary equivalent of what used to be quotas against Jews. That's a misunderstanding of not only how admissions works but how the larger society works.
This story appears in the November 7, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.