In my previous post, I wrote about an article by Ron Unz in The American Conservative about admissions policies at Ivy League universities, and their disparate impact on different ethnic groups, in particular the seeming unfairness to smart Asian-American applicants. In this post, I want to write about a broader question, the role of the Ivy League as gatekeepers to the elite.
I remember a remark by President Obama some time back about how he recognized that hedge fund managers, by and large, were smart people because many of them had been his college classmates at Harvard. It is an illustration of how the top people in Washington, Wall Street and academia form an inner circle. Part of Obama’s success is due to the fact that, in spite of his middle-class origins, he was able to make a favorable impression on people in top positions.
I have a problems with the whole idea of an elite group with gatekeepers who decide who gets in. This goes against what I was brought up to believe that the United States was all about—that an Andrew Jackson or an Abraham Lincoln could become President, a Thomas Edison could become a great inventor or an Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford could become a great industrialist, without any of them having to produce formal credentials to show their entitlement to a high position.
True, we live in a society in which people in top positions need to have more specialized knowledge than they did in an earlier era. But that knowledge can be acquired in many places, not just in a few elite universities. In the past couple of decades, the United States has had an increasing concentration of wealth at the top, a decline in upward mobility among American social classes, and a declining quality of leadership in government and corporate America. (If you doubt the latter, then you are happier with the American economy and the American position in the world than I am.) If the elite class and its gatekeepers did indeed produce superior leaders, I wouldn’t be so critical of the process by which they are selected.
The anecdotes in Unz’s article raise the delicate question of “political correctness.” This does not apply to the sons of privilege, such as Mitt Romney (Brigham Young BA 1971, Harvard MBA & JD 1975) or George W. Bush (Yale BA 1968, Harvard MBA 1975), who are assured an admission no matter what their opinions might be. But for someone from a more modest background, such as Barack Obama (Columbia BA 1983, Harvard JD 1991) or Bill Clinton (Georgetown BS 1968, Yale JD 1973), a lot would depend on the interviewer’s subjective impression.
I find it easy to imagine, but impossible to prove, that an interviewer could have a political bias that a high school student who campaigned against the death penalty probably was a well-rounded person, but somebody who campaigned in favor of the death penalty was intellectually and morally backward. I don’t have any direct knowledge of this, and would appreciate comment from anybody who does. I bring this up only because the comment thread on Unz’s article indicates a widespread perception that this is indeed the case.
Unz proposed a twofold reform:
- To the extent a university wants to claim that it is highly selective, admissions should be based on test scores.
- To the extent a university wants to claim that it is diverse and “looks like America,” admissions should be based on a lottery of everyone who meets minimum qualifications.
I don’t think there is any chance the Ivy League universities will accept such a proposal, and I don’t favor the federal government regulating admissions to private universities. What is needed is a change in attitude, in which people are judged based on their achievements and proved capabilities, rather than their credentials. This will be a long time coming, because so much of the existing elite was chosen precisely because of their credentials.
Equal opportunity should be provided by state universities, with, as in an earlier era, free or affordable tuition to everyone who can do college work. And educational and charitable institutions with huge investment portfolios should be required to devote a minimum percentage of those portfolios to their official purposes, or forfeit their tax exemptions.
Click on The Myth of American Meritocracy for Ron Unz’s full article.
Click on Paying Tuition to a Gigantic Hedge Fund for a sidebar by Ron Unz claiming that Harvard University is more of an investment fund than an educational institution.
Click on Harvard as Hedge Fund: Harvard Replies for Harvard’s reply and Ron Unz’s additional comment.
Click on Quantitative Sources and Methods for Ron Unz’s documentation of his claims.
Click on The claim that Harvard admissions discriminate in favor of Jews? I don’t see it for rebuttal by statistics expert Andrew Gelman [added 2/16/13]
Click on This Man Controls California for a 1999 profile of Ron Unz in The New Republic
Click on Ron Unz – Writings and Perspective | Views, Opinions and Notes for his web log.