In November 2014, the activist organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) brought suit against Harvard College for its undergraduate admissions policies, claiming that this most elite of American colleges was discriminating against Asian-Americans. The case will likely go to trial in federal court in early 2019. Along the way, the lawsuit has squeezed out confidential details regarding Harvard’s admissions process, with its differential impacts on students of different races.
Recently unsealed documents demonstrate that Asian-American applicants are hurt by Harvard’s “holistic”—or what the college terms “whole-person”—review process. According to Harvard’s internal investigation in 2013, an “academics only” standard, such as is typical of every other national university system in the world, would produce an admitted class that was 43 percent Asian-American. But once legacy status, athletics, extracurriculars, preferences for black and Hispanic applicants, and (especially) “personal rating” are added to the mix, Asian-Americans’ figure at Harvard falls to 19 percent. The statistical work of SFFA’s expert witness, Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, strongly suggests that there has indeed been active discrimination against Asian-Americans at Harvard. The same is almost certainly happening throughout elite American higher education, where the “whole-person” admissions standard is widely implemented and largely similar racial profiles result.
When it is on defense, Harvard denies that it discriminates against Asian-Americans. When on offense, it decries the lawsuit as an attack on diversity, its most solemn value. In this Harvard is quite right, though not in the way it thinks. The SFFA lawsuit is not an attack on pluralism per se—but it is an assault on the ideological conceptualization of difference and the American elite’s attempt to manage it. At issue is not simply race-conscious admissions practices, but “whole-person” review and the “multi-dimensional diversity” it supposedly produces. Holistic admissions are central to the process by which the American elite produces, reproduces, and justifies itself. The elite will fight this battle with all its strength.
Harvard has high praise for diversity. In its motion for summary judgment in the SFFA case, Harvard’s legal counsel quotes a 2015 Harvard committee report (unanimously endorsed by the Harvard College faculty) declaring:
[S]tudent body diversity—including racial diversity—is essential to our pedagogical objections and institutional mission. … [Diversity] enhances the education of all of our students, it prepares them to assume leadership roles in the increasingly pluralistic society into which they will graduate, and it is fundamental to the effective education of the men and women of Harvard College.
From this perspective, diversity is not merely a social fact. It is a cultural, economic, and political project intended not just to recognize difference but to generate and manage it. Diversity has practical implications: bureaucratic policies—including targeted recruitment, targeted financial aid, specialized training, formal grievance and disciplinary procedures, and “whole-person” review—along with an army of “diversity and inclusion” bureaucrats to implement them, are the heart of diversity as a managerial ideology.
The ideology of diversity places the manager at the center of the social order. It claims that pluralism is an individual and a social good—but a good that cannot be automatically realized. Only the expert manager can produce a positive social order in which difference is harmonized, creativity is enhanced, productivity is increased, and all individuals have an equal opportunity to develop and realize their merit for their own benefit and the benefit of society.
The managerial ideology of diversity is at work in Harvard’s “whole-person” admissions process. The classical liberal will trust in objective standards applied fairly to all. He might even propose a lottery system in which students are selected at random from a pool of applicants who meet the college’s admissions standards. The believer in diversity, by contrast, puts his faith in the manager. He supports a labor-intensive selection process based on subjective measures of merit, on the theory that managers can observe the unobservable. They can measure leadership potential, intellectual passion, social concern, unique talent, enthusiasm for a particular college, and the ability to surmount life’s challenges, and distill all these factors into a “personal rating.” They can combine the personal rating with a student’s standardized test scores, high school grades, athletic ability, extracurricular interests, and public service experience, producing an overall rating that determines whether or not she is to be admitted to the most elite “community of learning” in the country.
This managerial ideology is an elite faith. It justifies the elite to itself. In my experience, students of elite colleges strongly support holistic selection. After all, it selected them! Polls suggest that the masses, however, are not fooled. A survey conducted by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed after the Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016) found that a majority of Americans believe neither race, nor sex, nor legacy status should be considered in college admissions. On matters of race, this included a majority of both black and white Americans and a plurality of Hispanics. An overall plurality also objected to any consideration of athletic ability, first-generation status, or even a family’s economic circumstances. Only academic factors—high school grades, standardized test scores, and strength of high school course schedule—won majority support.
Diversity employs precisely these unpopular managerial practices in selecting young Americans for membership in the national elite. Harvard and the rest of America’s elite colleges know that these are the stakes. Selecting and producing “leaders” is the goal of every American college president, dean of students, and admissions director. Yet to accord such authority to private actors is deeply anti-democratic. “Whole-person” review allows elite institutions to define a future elite that will support the elite institutions that created it. And like any private actor, Harvard has a host of private interests it seeks to secure: a larger share of the country’s “leaders” among its alumni, a larger pool of wealthy donors, a larger endowment with a greater return rate, more black and Hispanic consultants and investment bankers, a greater concentration of elites in a smaller number of coastal cities, more applicants, and a shrinking acceptance rate. These are all clearly good for Harvard. But are they good for America?
Most Americans want their country to be a meritocracy. But every elite is meritorious by definition. “Merit” is that sets of skills in which the elite excel, and by which they differentiate themselves from rivals. In ancient China, “merit” entailed writing the eight-legged essay on the Confucian canon. In contemporary France, it entails demonstrating facility in French literature and philosophy. In Singapore, it entails math skills. In the United States, it entails “leadership” qualities.
The question we should pose, then, is not “Is this elite meritorious?” Instead we should ask, “Is this elite good?” Does our Ivy League-educated elite use its talents to benefit all, or to benefit itself? Does it improve the social conditions and life chances of the masses, or undermine them? If the latter, then no matter how well it masters Confucius or how high its personal rating, our “meritorious” elite is a bad one.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.