What makes Harvard, well, Harvard?

Author Malcolm Gladwell sets his sights on "the social logic of Harvard admissions" in the New Yorker -- with fascinating and sometimes hilariously acerbic results.

The introduction of a meritocratic college entrance exam in 1905 soon led to a "crisis" at the university as it gave anyone with the right amount of gray matter -- accompanied by the requisite family income -- the opportunity to become a Harvard man. The result: too many Jews, who by 1922 made up a fifth of the freshman class.


The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school: "The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate . . . because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also."
Gladwell is not interested in the mere fact of Harvard's anti-semitic past -- however gleeful he may be in reciting the sordid details -- but connects this racism to what we now recognize as the modern admissions process, which was introduced precisely to keep out 'the undesirables.'
The admissions office at Harvard became much more interested in the details of an applicant’s personal life. Lowell told his admissions officers to elicit information about the "character" of candidates from "persons who know the applicants well," and so the letter of reference became mandatory. Harvard started asking applicants to provide a photograph. Candidates had to write personal essays, demonstrating their aptitude for leadership, and list their extracurricular activities.
Other such innovations: mandatory disclosure of race, religion, and, slyly enough, changes in your name or that of your father -- and a personal interview to make sure the submitted information passed visual inspection.

Over the past century then the Ivies have used their admissions process to spectacular effect. What's interesting about Gladwell's argument is that he describes this "effect" as just another form of brand management -- the kind that makes an ad executive for a luxury car worry that too many black women are buying his client's product:
This is, in no small part, what Ivy League admissions directors do. They are in the luxury-brand-management business, and "The Chosen," in the end, is a testament to just how well the brand managers in Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton have done their job in the past seventy-five years. ...
In the Second World War, as Yale faced plummeting enrollment and revenues, it continued to turn down qualified Jewish applicants. As Karabel writes, "In the language of sociology, Yale judged its symbolic capital to be even more precious than its economic capital." No good brand manager would sacrifice reputation for short-term gain. The admissions directors at Harvard have always, similarly, been diligent about rewarding the children of graduates, or, as they are quaintly called, "legacies." ... Karabel calls the practice “unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst,” but rewarding customer loyalty is what luxury brands do.
The good news, however, is the logical conclusion to draw from the tireless efforts of these admission officers, which is: it's not the school, it's the students. In other words, a smart, talented, motivated student who can choose between Harvard and a state school will have enjoy exactly the same kind of success, irrespective of his/her choice.
The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience. [LINK via Hit and Run]
Amen. I don't think this excuses the elitism, but perhaps mitigates its effects on its potential victims.
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