Where’s the Outrage? | Higher Ed Gamma

Among my favorite movie-going memories involves a bittersweet low-budget 1977 Canadian sleeper, Outrageous!  A work of gay camp, based loosely on the real-life story of the Canadian novelist Margaret Gibson, the film features Craig Russell as a drag performer and Hollis McLaren as a pregnant schizophrenic who has recently fled from a mental hospital.

Outrageous?  Only in the context of its time.  The film, the first gay feature to achieve widespread distribution, will break your heart at the mistreatment that the protagonists experience.

If you want to experience a very different kind of outrage, you should read Evan Mandery’s forthcoming Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.  The book offers the most systematic, highly accessible critique of elite colleges and universities that 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 Harvard College and Harvard Law School graduate, the book begins each chapter with an inspiring biographical sketch that points to a deep-seated problem in higher education:  The inequitable treatment of students with lower socio-economic backgrounds.

You might say, under your breath, “been there, read that.”  But let me assure you: This book is different.  Anything but a polemic, the author draws upon the best social science scholarship and his own research to offer an impassioned and devastating critique of the mechanisms, rationales, and concessions that elite private institutions use to justify a system that reproduces the class order.

In one domain after another, the author provides examples of systemic bias.

In Admissions:  

The problem, he illustrates, isn’t limited to special consideration for athletes, legacies, and faculty and donor’s children, but 

  • Restrictions that the SAT and ACT impose on testing 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 policies in admissions that privilege students who do not require financial aid.

Mandery makes a strong argument that many of the experiences most valued in elite college admissions strongly correlate with wealth: participation in extracurriculars, esoteric sports, music, dance, and theatrical performance, certain kinds of social service, and, yes, Model UN.  But not working at McDonald’s or in a bodega.

The book offers a particularly damning critique of trial judge Allison Burroughs’ statements in the recent lawsuit over Harvard admissions. “Eliminating tips for ALDC [athletes, legacies, dean’s interest list, and children of employees of Harvard employees] applicants would have the effect of opening spots in Harvard’s class that could then be filled through an admissions policy more favorable to non-white students,” she wrote, “but Harvard would be far less competitive in Ivy League intercollegiate sports, which would adversely impact Harvard and the student experience.”  The judge added that added that eliminating special admissions preferences for the children of faculty and staff “would adversely affect Harvard’s ability to attract top-quality faculty and staff,” and that the number of donor’s children admitted was “far too small for the cessation of any such practice to contribute meaningfully to campus diversity.”

In Athletics:
The book draws upon the scholarship of Kirsten Hextrum to shatter the myth that college sports increases the diversity of the student body.  He shows that outside of basketball and football, intercollegiate sports is dominated by white athletes.  In Division I, over 60 percent of athletic scholarship recipients are white. Among women, two thirds of scholarship athletes are white.

In Career Services:
Even worse than the biases in admissions, however, is the way that elite institutions distort their students’ career aspirations.  At many institutions that serve a far broader student body, the most common career choices are in education, health care, and social services, but at Harvard the overwhelming majority (61 percent in 2020) go into finance (23 percent), consulting (22 percent), or the technology sector (18 percent).

As Mandery observes: “Only 4 percent of 2020 Harvard grads went into the health industry and another 3 percent into law. Merely 4 percent said they’d be working in public service or at a nonprofit.”  These figures are consistent, he shows, across elite institutions.

The drift toward finance and consulting isn’t accidental.  Career services at elite institutions work hand-in-glove with the financial and consulting sectors.  Beginning with Stanford in 2003, elite universities began to institute corporate partnership programs in which career centers serve as headhunters. In exchange for a fee, employers get access to email lists and assistance in setting up personal interviews.  

In Campus Culture:
Elite campuses, Mandery argues very persuasively, cultivate a kind of smugness among their undergraduates, who are repeated reminded, without irony, that they are the best and the brightest and that their good fortune rests entirely on merit.  In the author’s words, “Elite colleges simultaneously reproduce class inequality and belief in the justness of that inequality.”

Even worse, elite campus cultures, Poison Ivy argues, fuel a “perverse set of aspirations, attitudes, and behaviors.”  “Doing good,” through service activities is largely regarded as instrumental, as ways to enhance one’s resume. Heavy drinking is also encouraged.  

Common beliefs – that admissions is meritocratic, that campus diversity is genuine, that college is a melting pot, and that campus life is a democratic, egalitarian experience– all turn out to be myths, true, perhaps, to a limited extent, but actually quite misleading.

How can we as a society combat the lack of socio-economic diversity as well as racial diversity at our most selective institutions?  Note that while Harvard’s undergraduate student body is about 15 percent Black, at other Ivy Plus institutions the figure hovers around 8 percent. And at elite institutions most Pell Grant recipients came from families with incomes just below the federal cutoff (with very few just above the income cutoff); and most Black students are the children of mixed-race parents or of recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Britain, or Africa, or come from prep schools.

Mandery is an advocate of what he calls “1 percent solutions” – relatively small measures that taken together can indeed move the needle toward greater equity.  These include:

  • Ending admissions preferences for children of alumni, faculty, and donors, and athletes in esoteric or elite sports.
  • Abolishing early admissions.
  • Requiring institutions to admit a minimum percentage of Pell Grant eligible students or devoting a particular percentage of endowment earnings on financial aid for students from low-income backgrounds.
  • Building better pipelines from under-resourced high schools and expanding pathways from community colleges into highly selective institutions.

Mandery agrees with Bill Burnett, the director of Stanford’s design program, who cautions listeners about the dangers of obsessing with perfection. “The unattainable best,” Burnett says, “is the enemy of all the available betters.”

Elite colleges exist in a vortex of contradictions.  Take Harvard as an example.  The university has undertaken a series of initiatives – like committing $100 million to redress its links to slavery – even as legacy admissions and elite sports persist. It promotes elitism and encourages a wholly opaque system of admissions and engages an utterly unhealthy competition among elite institutions.  It produces “leaders,” including many consultants and bankers, but not necessarily thinkers.

And yet, one would have to possess a heart of stone not to be impressed by what Harvard has done.  $100 million is a hefty sum by any measure.  Some of its proposals are non-specific, but the university did get out in front, was transparent, and laid bare many of the institution’s transgressions and moral failures.

To be sure, Harvard is one of the few institutions with the wealth and resources to spend so much time and money redressing its past.  Still, this is a potent first step, one that I hope will encourage other institutions to take steps to confront their history.

The Harvard report reminds us that colleges and universities are not located on a hill, separate and apart from the world around it.  Harvard, too, has been subject to the tides of history.  Nevertheless, this is a win and perhaps a harbinger of a heightened willingness to tackle equity issues in a coordinated and consequential way.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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