Let Harvard Be Harvard, Only Bigger

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As Harvard’s defense of its admissions practices continues in a Boston courtroom, the university faces one main obstacle: It’s guilty as charged, as the Vox writer Matt Yglesias recently tweeted. Harvard policy does discriminate against Asian-Americans. So the next step is to arrive at a deeper understanding of how both America and Harvard got to this point.

Like Matt, I attended Harvard (for my doctorate in economics), and most of the people there are as well-meaning as any you might find in Idaho or West Virginia. So why are they imposing burdensome and prejudicial standards on Asian-American applicants?

Step back from the emotions of the current debate and start with the general point that social elites need to replicate themselves, one way or another. Otherwise they tend to fade away; think of the leaders and institutions of the temperance movement. Harvard, in contrast, is still one of America’s leading universities almost four centuries after being established.

One Harvard strategy, common among top universities, is to give preference to descendants of alumni. This practice boosts donations not only by cementing loyalties, but also because many alumni give money, either prospectively or “at the moment of purchase,” to get their children admitted. Thus do wealthy universities and family dynasties work in conjunction to help sustain American business and intellectual elites, both in terms of finances and cultural coherence.

Another Harvard strategy has been to support affirmative action and related practices to make the university more welcoming to African-American and Latino applicants. This is motivated by a genuine desire to remedy social injustice. It also helps put the university in the vanguard of progressive social movements, thereby boosting the status of Harvard and helping it maintain its culturally elite position — and, not coincidentally, its donations.

Finally, Harvard hasn’t boosted class size very much over recent decades. A Harvard class is supposed to be cohesive rather than anonymous, more like a memorable social event than a visit to a giant retail warehouse. That, too, boosts the impact of Harvard as an experience, and it probably induces alumni to give more money.

When you put all of these policies together, however, some group has to be on the losing side. In this case, it is Asian-American applicants with excellent grades and test scores. But Harvard’s leaders see the university as good for America (correct) and their policies as good for Harvard (plausible, though of course debatable). Voila! The collateral damage on Asian-American applicants is psychologically minimized and explained away as a problem that can only be remedied over time.

There is a relatively straightforward way to remedy this problem: As both I and my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith have argued, America’s elite universities should significantly boost their class size. That would allow Harvard to accommodate many of the Asian-American applicants disadvantaged under the current system. I readily admit that raising class size will lower academic standards for faculty tenure. I don’t think it will lower the average quality of the student body at Harvard, and it may well raise it, given the academic injustices of the status quo. It does mean that most of Harvard’s academic departments — which play a major role in running the university — would have to expand considerably, and that would in many cases displace the current ruling departmental coalitions.

Returning to the larger problem of elite reproduction: Few societies have methods of assuring cultural continuity that could be revealed transparently without causing at least some outrage or scandal. It’s not that all of these methods are deliberately racist or prejudicial. Rather, it’s that — by necessity — they involve some exclusion of outsiders, if only as a byproduct of the strategy for building cultural coherence among the in-group. It is no accident that Harvard has strenuously resisted disclosing the methods of its admission processes.

But with the lawsuit, Harvard’s strategies and data are being revealed to all, and can be debated by all. Of course it’s not going to look good. I was struck by a recent paper showing that “almost 80 percent of the faculty at a top 10 economics department did their Ph.D. in a top 10 department.”

Well, maybe those really are the best schools. But this is the world that has to end, and greater fairness for Asian-Americans will be one of the biggest collateral benefits from greater inclusivity and openness.

In the meantime, the elites will do everything possible to protect the system, co-opt the opposition, and make a mix of symbolic and real concessions. Selection and survival pressures have a way of imposing their will on situations, no matter what the intentions of the people involved. You will recognize these elites by their apologies, their attempts to shift the focus back to African-American issues, and their unwillingness to entertain fundamental change.

This fight is long overdue, and I am going to enjoy it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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