“O” for Opportunity

Imagine, against all the evidence, that the Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments on October 31 in the anti-affirmative-action lawsuits Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) has brought against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, rules for the defendant institutions (as trial and appellate courts have). Imagine the College, whose admissions processes outlined in the 1978 Bakke decision and upheld ever since (holistic review of candidates, including permissible consideration of racial and ethnic backgrounds, in pursuit of a diverse student body that contributes to their education ) is deemed within the law of the land, and may carry on. The policies articulated and defended by Derek Bok (with particular force in The Shape of the River, written with Princeton’s William Bowen); Neil Rudenstine (in his President’s Report, 1993-1995); Drew Faust (in the University’s filings in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin); and Lawrence Bacow (through the SFFA trial, appeal, and now Supreme Court review) are upheld. One of Harvard’s core values, underpinning its admissions process, remains intact (see “Debating Diversity,” May-June 2019, page 21.)

Though no close observer expects the Court to rule this way, suppose it does, just as Harvard’s thirtieth president takes office next summer. She or he will likely be a committed proponent of holistic admissions: among the search criteria laid out in July by Penny Pritzker, the senior fellow, were “a commitment to embracing diversity along many dimensions as a source of strength, and a dedication to the ideals and values central to our community of learning.” And so, approaching Masschusetts Hall, and with Supreme Court backing freshly in hand, what should the University’s new leader do?

An obvious default would be to thank one’s lucky stars, issue a statement praising the ruling, and check one item off the staggering to-do list: no need to re-engineer admissions.


An outsider, not tasked with the president’s daunting responsibilities, could well sympathize with that instinct. But we’re being counterfactual, and it is worth considering why such a reaction might not be optimal.

To begin, in case of victory, Harvard would be playing from a position of strength. No one can doubt its commitment to diversity in admissions—to benefit each admittee, as they live and learn among others who are not all alike. (That commitment of course extends beyond acceptance: students, faculty, and staff members know that diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging programs have been instituted throughout the University, backed with personnel and budgets.)

Perhaps it would be possible to take stock from this favorable vantage point (especially when compared to a decision outlawing Harvard’s practices). And there is a practical reason for doing so. As the magazine has noted, the public loathes affirmative action: “A Pew Research Center report…found that 73 percent of Americans opposed considering race or ethnicity in admissions—and although the share of respondents varied, strong majorities of white, black, Hispanic, and Asian respondents, and of Republicans and Democrats, agreed….Majorities favored relying on high school grades and standardized test scores as the major criteria for admissions [and] opposed considering athletic ability, first-generation or legacy status, or gender in making admissions decisions.”

Political sentiment shouldn’t determine the University’s pursuit of what it believes to be the right way to fulfill its educational mission. Indeed, the ability to march to a different drummer, to do even unpopular intellectual work, is essential to its role within a free society. But might it be possible to avoid unnecessary friction?

Here, a third consideration comes into play. Given Harvard’s proven commitment to attracting and educating learners from all walks of life, is there an opening to change the way it describes that proposition to the public? This is an unabashedly elite institution. It winnows applicants to find the few best able to benefit from and contribute to the education it offers, and is relentless in assessing candidates for faculty appointments.

But the public has rightly come to view such institutions as elitist in ways that simply seem unfair: those to whom educational and economic advantage have already accrued have a leg up in securing spots in the student body for their children. Ackman professor of public economics Raj Chetty and his Opportunity Insights colleagues have demonstrated the socioeconomic effects of declining mobility. Others’ recent research suggests that the professoriate has become self-replicating. And although Harvard’s enhanced financial aid and other efforts to reach out to more first-generation students have yielded important results, the glass is less than half full. Some 24 percent of members of the class of 2026 come from families with incomes below $75,000—but that is about the median U.S. household income: the skew toward those with greater means, often far greater, remains intact.

Americans believe deeply in opportunity. Higher education is sold as among the most important means toward a better, more fulfilling life. More than a half-century into a successful commitment to more diverse admissions (and nearly a half-century into defending those principles before the Supreme Court), is it time to declare victory and change the language?

This is not to suggest any lessening of Harvard’s commitment to diversity. It is, rather, to encourage rediscovering the language of opportunity: emphasizing above all that the University aims to encourage able, energetic candidates to realize their potential and fulfill their capacity to serve society. Opportunity comes among people in all walks of life. It extends to the highly privileged, demonstrably accomplished student whose aptitudes and skills can be developed further—in the sciences, preparation for medicine or law, as an artist. And it extends in the more familiar sense to a disciplined, highly promising youth who has overcome adverse circumstances, under-resourced schools, and more to prove her mettle.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona critiqued elite institutions sharply this past summer: “Too often our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps to opportunity for all Americans.” He assailed “conflating selectivity with excellence” and “correlating prestige with privilege. We must embrace a new vision of college excellence.” Even Harvard might want to review its message.


The Supreme Court is likely to constrain or even upend the admissions practices of Harvard and its peers. Lose or win, the University will remain committed to diversity in the best sense. It says here that no matter the ruling, Harvard still ought to consider recommitting to its values in a new way. If embraced by its next generation of leaders, the language of opportunity could provide a way for the University to endorse a fundamental value anew—the better to explain its purposes to external skeptics and internal constituents alike.

—John S. Rosenberg, Editor


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