Saturday, June 9, 2012

HARVARD | College Admissions Policy 1958-2012

June 9, 2012 –Attending my 50th Reunion at Harvard last month, and especially watching in the alumni parade the changing composition of the classes before and after ours, was instructive.

It helped me put into perspective Harvard admissions policies. In the 1950s there was a modest push for more Catholics, in the 1960s a stronger campaign for more minorities and in the 1970s an unstoppable opening of the gates for women.

Of these three decades, the biggest impact was the third because it totally changed the ratio of women to men.


When I applied to Harvard in early 1958, the recruiter who came to Portsmouth Priory (now Abbey) School seemed to want to admit as many seniors there as possible. One reason is that some seniors had good scores on the SAT and Advanced Placement exams. But something else was going on. It was before the words "affirmative action" gained currency, but Catholics were sought out in the 1950s.

I was working on hometown news in the Harvard News Office in 1959-62 and one of my stories was about a second-generation Italian-American in the Cambridge high school system who was employed in the cafeteria in Dunster House, where he was discovered by an admissions officer and became a student at  Harvard in 1957.

Portsmouth is a fine Benedictine monastic school that was and is the school of choice for many Catholic parents in the United States, Canada and several Latin American countries. Naturally it was an early target for raising the number of Catholics entering Harvard. Besides me, Harvard admitted six other Portsmouth graduates to the Class of 1962, five of us from the Portsmouth Class of 1958 and two additional classmates via Advanced Placement from the Portsmouth Class of 1959. I speculate that the reason for the new attention to Catholics was the up-and-coming status of a Harvard graduate in Massachusetts, Senator John F. Kennedy, who was being talked about as a possible Presidential successor to Dwight Eisenhower.


But here's the kicker. While Harvard's Class of 1962 includes seven graduates of Portsmouth (which has a graduating class of 35), it admitted - according to a classmate, though I wasn't able to confirm this with data on the distribution of the Harvard '62 class via Google - just eleven African-American students from throughout the United States of America. The Reunion audiences in Sanders Theater were 100 percent white, as far as I could tell. One of the eleven, W. Haywood Burns, was indeed elected 1962 Class Marshal and went on to become Dean of the CUNY Law School at Queens College. However, he died at 55 years of age in a 1996 Capetown car crash.

Harvard no doubt has continued to seek out Catholics in high schools throughout the country that weren't committed to being feeders for the Catholic universities, but once the civil rights era of the 1960s took hold under President Kennedy, activists like Haywood Burns pressed for affirmative action in consideration of African-American students. Never again would Harvard admit so few minorities.


But the civil rights movement for America's people of color was rapidly overtaken in the 1970s by the search for gender equality.  The 50th Anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving U.S. women the right to vote, was in 1970 and was celebrated that year with a huge parade in  New York City that featured both Gloria Steinem and the late Betty Friedan. It had taken 50 years from the enfranchisement of black males in 1870 with the 15th Amendment to the 19th Amendment. Young women in 1970 were not going to wait that long again to press for equal opportunity in college admissions.

The story of the struggle at Harvard over Radcliffe admissions during the years before and after 1970 was told in April 2012 by Dean Helen Lefkowich Horowitz, who received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1969. Students and the National Organization of Women campaigned for an equal male-female ratio at Harvard. (Until 1962, the women students at Radcliffe took the same classes as Harvard students but were given a Radcliffe degree. Starting in 1963, women attending Harvard classes and fulfilling Harvard requirements started getting a Harvard degree.) The ratio of men to women at Harvard was fixed at four to one.

To understand what the women were up against, here is what the Dean of Freshmen, F. Skiddy von Stade, had to say about the idea of admitting equal numbers of men and women:

When I see bright, well-educated, but relatively dull housewives who attended the Seven Sisters, I honestly shudder at the thought of changing the balance of males versus females at Harvard. ... Quite simply, I do not see highly educated women making startling strides in contributing to our society in the foreseeable future. They are not, in my opinion, going to stop getting married and/or having children. They will fail in their present role as women if they do.
Dean Horowitz comments: "I'm sure his niece, the great mezzo Frederica von Stade would have shaken her head at this, if her schedule permitted."

Harvard's Dean of Admissions Chase Peterson in 1970 issued a report that opposed changing the four-to-one ratio. But five years later the Strauch Committee recommended gender-blind admissions and this seems to be, formally, the rule now. 

The Unabomber,Ted Kaczynski, 
Harvard '62
Thoughtful admissions policies are not just good for the country and good for Harvard–they can also be good for the students themselves. Would Theodore J. Kaczynski have become a serial murderer if he hadn't gone to Harvard at 16? 

He was too young–so was I, and so were probably the other entering Harvard freshmen who were 16, of whom I know a few–and he should have been admitted with a recommendation that he take a "gap year" off to travel or study before entering college. Probably today that is what would have happened.

Kaczynski lists his occupation in the 1962 50th Reunion Class Report (the "Red Book") as "prisoner". Under "awards" he lists are "eight life sentences, issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, 1998."