The Magazine


Mar 25, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 27 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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A 58-page report from the president of Harvard on "Diversity and Learning" may not seem like hot stuff -- and it isn't, really -- but it shows where American education is today. Since Harvard is run by liberals and has been for some time, it is no surprise that Nell Rudenstine should write a defense of the liberal policy of affirmative action. What is striking is that he calls up the names of old-time liberals from the days when dead white males were men, and proud of it.

Rudenstine's report has not received as much attention as it deserves. It has not aroused much controversy among students, and the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, found it lacking in fresh ideas. But the report was not meant to offer new ideas, and it has perhaps received as much attention as Rudenstine wanted. President since 1991, Rudenstine has kept a low profile, and this is his first venture into a hot political topic. Although he refers to controversy over diversity, he writes dispassionately, raises no new questions, and tries not to add to the controversy. He claims that since the 19th century, Harvard has sought diversity as can be seen in quotations from its best-known presidents -- Charles W. Eliot, A. Lawrence Lowell, James B. Conant -- all of whom actually used the precious word. Like an administrator ably deflecting public anxiety, and wary of increasing what he means to allay, Rudenstine reassures any skeptics that, with affrmative action, Harvard is merely doing what it has always done, which surely was done, and is still being done, for good reason.

Rarely these days does Harvard praise its tradition, and it is welcome to see some respect for the good done by dead white males. But in this case (as often happens), tradition is praised so as to cover a departure from it. Affrmative action is not the continuation of a long-time search for diversity at Harvard. When it was instituted in the late 60s, it was a fundamental change, and that is what it remains. In the past, diversity was sought for the sake of academic excellence; now it is sought at the expense of excellence.

It would be wrong to suggest that Harvard has abandoned its "commitment to excellence" or the attempt to assess "individual merit" in admitting undergraduates, for Rudenstine proclaims the institution's devotion to these things. The trouble is not that individual merit is denied, but that it is compromised-and the need for compromise is then denied. The report says that along with individual merit, the applicant's contribution to the whole community is weighed, so that students will be challenged and enriched by being with others unlike themselves. The student body should consist not only of future professors but should comprise in all its "diversity" the future elite (elite is my term, not Rudenstine's). But the question the report ducks is this: Should race be a category in the diversity along with musical, athletic or literary talent, or political ambition, or scientific promise? Should the title for admission for some students be the color of their skin?

Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, set out to transform a college into a university, and to do this he sought to attract students of diverse religions and from diverse regions of the country. But by "diversity" Eliot meant a diversity of talents, not a mere variety of backgrounds, much less proportional representation of racial groups. Diversity was subordinated to the ruling principle of academic excellence and made to serve it.

Rudenstine, quoting his predecessor Derek Bok, tries to give the impression that recruiting black students for Harvard is a mere extension of a policy of diversity from geography to race. But there is a big difference he does not mention: the stubborn and unwelcome fact that blacks do not perform as well as other groups on standardized tests. I do not know whether this fact is inherited or acquired, so I will just call it stubborn. It certainly is unwelcome, and all the more because the difference is not small. For classes entering Harvard in 1991 and 1992, the difference in SAT scores between blacks and whites was 95 points (out of a total of 1600); and this was the smallest discrepancy in any of the colleges reporting to the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, which made the survey. At the University of California, Berkeley, the difference was 288 points.