Among my favorite movie memories are a bittersweet low-budget Canadian sleeper from 1977, Scandalous! A gay camp job, loosely based on the true story of Canadian novelist Margaret Gibson, the film features Craig Russell as a drag performer and Hollis McLaren as a pregnant schizophrenic who recently fled a mental hospital.
Scandalous? Only in the context of his time. The film, the first gay feature film to be released on a large scale, will break your heart at the mistreatment suffered by the protagonists.
If you want to experience a very different kind of outrage, you should read Evan Mandery’s next article Poison Ivy: How elite colleges are dividing us. The book offers the most systematic and accessible critique of elite colleges and universities you are likely to encounter.
Written by a John Jay professor of criminal justice and an author of fiction and non-fiction who is himself a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, the book begins each chapter with an inspiring biographical sketch that points to an issue. deeply rooted in higher education. education: the unfair treatment of students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
You might say, under your breath, “been there, read this.” But let me assure you: this book is different. Anything but polemic, the author draws on the best social science scholarship and his own research to offer a passionate and devastating critique of the mechanisms, justifications and concessions that elite private institutions use to justify a system which reproduces the class order.
In one area after another, the author provides examples of systemic biases.
The problem, he illustrates, is not limited to special consideration for donors’ athletes, legacies, teachers and children, but
- Restrictions the SAT and ACT place on test fee waivers.
- 504 designations that provide unlimited time for standardized testing that more affluent students are far more likely to take advantage of.
- Early decision admissions policies that favor students who do not need financial aid.
Mandery argues that many of the most valued experiences in elite college admissions are strongly correlated with wealth: participation in extracurricular activities, esoteric sports, music, dance and theatrical performances, certain types of social services and, yes, the model United Nations. But don’t work at McDonald’s or a bodega.
The book offers a particularly damning critique of Trial Judge Allison Burroughs’ statements in the recent Harvard admissions trial. “Elimination of tips for ALDC [athletes, legacies, dean’s interest list, and children of employees of Harvard employees] applicants would have the effect of opening places in the Harvard class which could then be filled through an admissions policy more favorable to non-white students,” she wrote, “but Harvard would be much less competitive in Ivy League intercollegiate sports, which would negatively impact Harvard and the student experience. The judge added that eliminating special admissions preferences for the children of faculty and staff “would harm Harvard’s ability to attract high-quality faculty and staff,” and that the number of donor children admitted was “far too small for the cessation of any such practice contributes significantly to the diversity of the campus.
The book draws on Kirsten Hextrum’s scholarship to bust the myth that varsity sports increase diversity in the student body. It shows that outside of basketball and football, intercollegiate sports are dominated by white athletes. In Division I, more than 60% of athletic scholarships are white. Among women, two-thirds of scholarship athletes are white.
In career services:
Worse than admissions bias, however, is the way elite institutions distort their students’ career aspirations. At many institutions that serve a much larger student body, the most common career choices are in education, health care, and human services, but at Harvard the overwhelming majority (61% in 2020) goes to finance (23%), consulting (22%). percent), or the technology sector (18 percent).
As Mandery observes, “Only 4% of Harvard graduates in 2020 went into the healthcare industry and 3% into law. Only 4% said they would work in the public service or in a non-profit organization. These numbers are consistent, he shows, across elite institutions.
The drift towards finance and consulting is not accidental. The career services of elite institutions work hand in hand with the financial and consulting sectors. Beginning with Stanford in 2003, elite universities began instituting corporate partnership programs in which career centers serve as headhunters. In exchange for compensation, employers have access to mailing lists and assistance in setting up personal interviews.
In Culture Campus:
Elite campuses, Mandery argues very convincingly, cultivate a kind of smugness among their undergraduates, who are constantly reminded, without irony, that they are the best and the brightest and that their good fortune entirely on merit. In the words of the author, “elite colleges simultaneously reproduce class inequality and the belief in the fairness of that inequality.”
Worse still, elite campus cultures, according to Poison Ivy, fuel a “perverse set of aspirations, attitudes, and behaviors.” “Doing good” through service activities is widely seen as a way to enhance one’s resume. Excessive alcohol consumption is also encouraged.
Common beliefs—that admissions are meritocratic, campus diversity is genuine, college is a melting pot, and campus life is a democratic and egalitarian experience—all turn out to be myths, true, perhaps. be, to some extent, but actually quite misleading.
How can we, as a society, address the lack of socio-economic diversity as well as racial diversity in our most selective institutions? Note that while Harvard’s undergraduate student body is roughly 15% black, at other Ivy Plus institutions the figure hovers around 8%. And in elite institutions, most Pell Grant recipients came from families with incomes just below the federal threshold (with very few just above the income threshold); and most black students are the children of mixed-race parents or recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Britain or Africa, or come from prep schools.
Mandery is a proponent of what he calls “1% solutions” – relatively small steps that, taken together, can indeed move the needle towards greater equity. These include:
- End admissions preferences for children of former students, faculty and donors, and athletes in esoteric or elite sports.
- Abolition of early admissions.
- Require institutions to admit a minimum percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students or dedicate a particular percentage of endowment revenue to financial aid for students from low-income backgrounds.
- Build better pipelines from underfunded high schools and expand pathways from community colleges to highly selective institutions.
Mandery agrees with Bill Burnett, Stanford’s design program director, who warns listeners of the dangers of obsessing over perfection. “The unreachable best,” says Burnett, “is the enemy of all the best available.”
Elite colleges exist in a whirlwind of contradictions. Take Harvard as an example. The university has taken on a series of initiatives — like committing $100 million to mend its ties to slavery — even as legacy admissions and elite sports persist. It promotes elitism and encourages a completely opaque admissions system and engages in utterly unhealthy competition among elite institutions. It produces “leaders”, including many consultants and bankers, but not necessarily thinkers.
And yet, one would have to have a heart of stone not to be impressed by what Harvard has done. $100 million is a considerable amount by any measure. Some of its proposals are non-specific, but the university has taken the lead, been transparent, and laid bare many of the institution’s transgressions and moral failings.
Certainly, Harvard is one of the few institutions with the wealth and resources to spend so much time and money fixing its past. Yet it is a powerful first step, which I hope will encourage other institutions to take steps to confront their history.
The Harvard report reminds us that colleges and universities are not situated on a hill, separated and separated from the world around them. Harvard, too, has been subject to the tides of history. Nonetheless, it is a victory and perhaps a harbinger of an increased willingness to tackle equity issues in a coordinated and consistent way.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.