My Harvard diversity story

Diversity has its challenges — at Harvard and beyond.

Widener Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Photo by Joseph Williams/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — None of my three kids applied to Harvard so I’m in no position to say whether their status as legacies would have made a difference. But I expect their chances would have been way better if I’d been a high-tech billionaire instead of a humanities professor, as a new study by some Harvard economists suggests.

And if I’d been a Hollywood star or a prominent politician, that probably wouldn’t have hurt their chances, either. Point is, elites gotta elite, and they’ve got many ways to do it. 

Of course, there’s the problem of those pesky over-achieving minorities who threaten to alter the campus social order — Asians today, Jews once upon a time. A century ago, when aspiring second-generation Jewish kids from Boston’s Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods started applying in droves, Harvard limited their admission by making national geographic diversity a new priority.

But today I come to tell a different Harvard diversity story — one that, well, helped the Jews. 

Back in the early 1990s, when I was working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a controversy broke out at Westminster Schools, a premiere private academy. It had been established by Presbyterians in 1951 as a Christian institution, but in the generic establishmentarian way that elite private schools were in those days.

Jewish students were welcome, not least because they helped secure a desired reputation for sending graduates to the country’s top colleges. While the faculty was all Christian, the ethos was “Judeo-Christian” in the inclusive postwar meaning of the term.

That changed in the 1980s, however, under a new, evangelical headmaster. Faculty seeking positions at the school were asked if they believed in the Trinity. Religion Appreciation Week became Christian Appreciation Week.

The new direction divided the Westminster community. Some Jewish parents withdrew their children. Many Christian parents and alumni were distressed, concerned the newfound exclusivism was inconsistent with the school’s mission to educate a diverse and broad-minded Atlanta elite. 

And so Westminster discovered that it couldn’t have it both ways. It couldn’t promote a pedal-to-the-metal evangelicalism and stay at the top of Atlanta’s college-prep heap. 

After the controversy broke in the media, the school received letters of protest from Yale, Duke, Georgetown, Tufts, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts, Washington University of St. Louis — and from Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons.

Harvard, Fitzsimmons wrote, was looking for students with “the ability to thrive in a school situation in which diversity and complexity are valued.” That meant, he said, that “Westminster students are at a disadvantage getting into Harvard.”


Plus, Harvard, along with Georgetown, Tufts and Washington University, declined to send recruiters to Westminster’s career day program.

It took a few months for the school to cave, but cave it did. The school would retain a Christian identity, but no longer would non-Christians be excluded from its faculty.

Today, Westminster describes itself as “an inclusive Christian school” that honors the substance and practice of other religions and seeks to support and encourage students of all faiths, beliefs, cultures, and backgrounds.”

As for the position enunciated by Fitzsimmons, well, you could argue that a private university truly devoted to diversity and complexity should include some students innocent of both. Or you could argue that a private university is entitled to create an institutional ethos by favoring those students most equipped to embrace it.

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