The Harvard Letter


By Mark Bauerlein

Whenever a college president issues an official statement, you must ask a simple question.  The question is not “Is it true?”  Nor is it “Is this ideological?”  Instead, you ask, “How does this statement protect the brand?”

If you sit at the top of an institution, your success depends first on how the institution fares under your direction, the prime yardstick being that of money.  Did the endowment rise or fall during your term?  Did research dollars and alumni donations go up or down?  Whatever your intellectual values and leadership qualities may be, the state of the finances prevails.  If you’ve improved the curriculum but can’t raise money, well, it’s time to move on.

The second yardstick follows from the first: reputation, whose rise and fall affects the money stream.  When the college name is broadcast to the public, do people think highly or lowly of it?  Does the school get bad publicity or good publicity?  The president is the most public face of the institution, and his actions must enhance the reputation, not damage it.  Everything he says must be conceived with the question, “How will this reflect on the school?” in mind.

No presidential statement, then, is a pure expression of principle.  When a president tries to pass one off as just that, we have to laugh.

A nice illustration of that kind of high-minded puffery issued from the president at Harvard just last week (on June 12th).  It’s called “Defending Diversity,” two words that challenge you not to roll your eyes and mutter, “Oh, brother, not again.”  The statement is cast as a response to the affirmative action case that is moving through the courts and accuses Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans in college admissions. It could be a problem for Harvard, because the complainants, Students for Fair Admissions, believe they have the numbers to prove anti-Asian bias.  Added to that, this time nobody can claim that the litigants aim to reinstitute white supremacy at selective institutions.  If affirmative action were abolished at Harvard et al., those previously reserved spaces wouldn’t go to whites.  They’d go to Chinese-, Korean-, Japanese-, and Indian-Americans.

We know that this “Letter” by President Drew Faust will use fraudulent tactics from the second sentence:

As the case proceeds, an organization called Students for Fair Admissions—formed in part to oppose Harvard’s commitment to diversity—will seek to paint an unfamiliar and inaccurate image of our community and our admissions processes . . .

Note the parenthesis: “formed in part to oppose Harvard’s commitment to diversity.”  Nobody at Students for Fair Admissions would present his motives in this way.  The organization isn’t out to attack anything so abstract as a “commitment to diversity.”  It exists because many Asian American students believe they must compete on unequal terms when it comes to college admissions.  Why, they ask, should a Chinese American kid whose grandparents came to the United States as cheap labor, never learned much English, and lived in a tiny house in a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles—the parents of a good buddy in college fit this description—have to outperform by a significant degree an African American child of professionals?

That basic question sums up the lawsuit.  But Faust’s attribution takes us out of the concrete and into the ideal.  She doesn’t say anything specific about the admissions process and the grounds for the lawsuit except to note later in the sentence “allegations of discrimination against Asian American applicants.”  The lawsuit, of course, will rest on precisely those specifics (test scores, GPA, rates of admission over time . . .), but Faust has a jaded prediction about how they will be handled.  Students for Fair Admissions will “rely on misleading, selectively presented data taken out of context.”  These Asian Americans, you see, are troublemakers.  They want to “advance a divisive agenda.”

This is the point where we can’t help guffawing.  Her characterization is just the kind of protect-the-brand maneuver we should expect of a rich university.  Harvard, Faust insists, is a uniter, not a divider.  Its admissions policies don’t pit one group against another, no, not at all.  Diversity at Harvard produces one big happy family.  Harvard is hyper-selective, yes, and the more exclusive it is, the higher its prestige, but that doesn’t mean it divides people, though it certainly must divide the few that get in and the multitudes that don’t.  It is exquisitely conscious of racial identities, too, but that in no way interferes with the lovely congeniality and inspiring racial progress that Harvard realizes every day on campus.

If that’s true, though, why did black students push for their own graduation ceremony?

We waste our time when we pose this question.  Statements college presidents make have a different purpose.  They “represent” the school in the way the school wants to be represented.  Conservative critics must understand that if they wish to criticize the ideological aggressions of those institutions effectively.  Once they identify the “branding” that the presidents seek, then conservatives may focus on the genuine weak points in the ideology at work, and expose them.

Here the branding occurs in the very next paragraph, an extension of the “commitment to diversity” pledge.

Year after year, Harvard brings together a community that is the most varied and diverse that any of us is likely ever to encounter.

Again, you can’t help laughing at this protestation of joyous, comforting difference and togetherness.  Calling the Classes of 2019, 2020, 2021, . . . “varied and diverse” is one of two things: a lie or a delusion.  Students at Harvard come from the One Percent, the super-achievers.  Half the population has an IQ under 100.  None of them go to Harvard.  Half the high school population completes less than four hours per week of homework. None of them go to Harvard.  Harvard denizens are a rarefied group.  I presume Faust does not include janitors and food-service workers in her community.  Of course, if asked, she would most firmly acknowledge them as part of Harvard’s family, but then we’d have to go ask 100 students on the quad the names of the people who clean the bathrooms in their respective buildings.

This brings us to the throbbing weakness in the selective college president’s position.  Attacked on a legal front by a disfavored minority group, she must engage in a denial of the very reality that she has fostered as part of her job.  Harvard cannot appear to be a ruthless gatekeeper allowing only the very talented few to pass through, nor can it admit to playing games with individuals based upon their ancestry.  Instead, Harvard must look abundant and generous and familial and good.

As the sentences in Faust’s letter roll on, then, the idealistic rhetoric becomes thick and ardent.  We can imagine tears in her eyes as she promises to “defend diversity as the source of our strength and our excellence”; assures everyone that a “diverse student body enables us to enrich, to educate, and to challenge one another,” and that “we are bound across differences by a shared commitment to learning.”  She even mentions “the promise of a world made better by an assumption revisited, an understanding or a truth questioned—again and again and again.”

And, of course, we have the final pats on the back, which every college president must give to himself and to the teachers and to the students if the branding is to work.  At last month’s commencement, she “reveled in the accomplishments of our graduates and alumni, and in the joy and pride of the faculty who educated them, the staff who enabled their manifold successes, and the family members who helped nurture them and their aspirations.”

Nothing about the basis of that accomplishment, however.  I mean the whole system of competition that got them into Harvard and kept them there.  The graduates whom she celebrates as part of the Harvard community don’t see themselves that way.  They have struggled and striven to get to Harvard, which is to say, they outdid the kids sitting next to them in high school classrooms across the country.  They didn’t want to join the Harvard “community.”  They didn’t care about Harvard “diversity.”  They wanted to go to the best, to the university that took them and hardly anybody else.  That’s the real brand of Harvard, the one the kids and parents and faculty prize, not the spurious diversity community that Faust espouses.  Her letter is merely a thin façade, one I presume she thinks is necessary because of the many diversiphiles in higher education and the many Americans who resent Harvard for precisely the exclusiveness that Faust omits from her presentation.

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