Bernie Sanders has been garnering national media attention with his plans to offer free tuition at public colleges and universities. It’s an idea worthy of debate, although I am not entirely convinced at this point. For example, I am not sure that I understand the societal benefits of guaranteeing free college to, say, Barron Trump.
But at least Bernie Sanders is interested in an honest debate about the issue. At Harvard, the issue is becoming a Trojan horse for a far more difficult—if not troubling—issue. Visit www.freeharvard.org, and you’ll see that the page’s backers—who have termed their movement Free Harvard/Fair Harvard support free tuition for all Harvard undergraduates because Harvard now has $38 billion in assets in its tax-exempt endowment, which generates substantial investment income. Scroll farther down the page and you’ll see a claim of “strong evidence that Harvard has a system of ‘Asian Quotas’ just like the ‘Jewish Quotas’ of the 1920s.” Finally, you’ll see a link to a platform that includes “increase[ing] the transparency of the admissions process.”
This movement has come about because Harvard’s alumni are currently voting for members of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, one of the University’s most important governing bodies. The Free Harvard/Fair Harvard group has sponsored a slate of candidates consisting of Ralph Nader, Ron Unz, Stephen Hsu, Stuart Taylor, Jr., and Lee C. Cheng. In candidate statements mailed to all Harvard alumni around the world, each candidate states his (and they are all men) allegiance to the project and to “transparency and fairness” in the Harvard admissions process.
But this supposed goal of transparency is not nearly as noble as it sounds. As The New York Times has pointed out, four of the five Free Harvard/Fair Harvard candidates (all but Mr. Nader), “have written or testified extensively against affirmative action.” It strains credulity to believe that transparency in admissions means anything other than eliminating or curbing affirmative action. That’s not something that I can get behind for a range of reasons.
Moreover, I find deep symbolic issues with a group of five men running against the slate of candidates nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association in a bid to reshape Harvard admissions. The slate of candidates proposed by the Harvard Alumni Association includes four women and five men. To me, this is important diversity for an institution that, for most of its history, did not admit women. Indeed, for the first 300 years of its existence, Harvard did not even permit women schooled at neighboring Radcliffe and to attend classes at all-male Harvard. The Free Harvard/Fair Harvard slate does not even acknowledge this issue.
Of equal importance, I deeply resent the Trojan horse game being played here. There are good reasons to discuss to whom Harvard charges tuition and how much it charges. As the group Diverse Harvard—which has endorsed candidates from the Harvard Alumni Association slate—points out ,20% of Harvard students already pay no tuition or room and board (less than under the Free Harvard/Fair Harvard proposal, which would only cut tuition). There might be an argument that Harvard should raise the family income threshold at which students qualify for this benefit (currently available for families earning less than $65,000 per year). But that debate—and whether Barron Trump should have to pay Harvard tuition—is entirely different debate than whether Harvard should stop accounting for race and gender in its admissions process. Linking the two under a populist slogan—free tuition—ignores the nuances of both, and calls into question the candor of those running under the slogan.
Opponents of affirmative action have lost time and again—in the courts and at Harvard. This new maneuver appears to be little more than an attempt to do covertly what could not be done openly. Hopefully, Harvard’s alumni will be smart enough to understand the game being played here.