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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Getting Into Harvard

We had champagne recently to celebrate a first in our lives. My husband has been volunteering for decades as an interviewer for Harvard – and last week, for the first time ever, two of the students he championed were admitted! Most years, he has none, and he’s never even hoped for two.

This is important, as it signals the completion of a sea change in Ivy League admissions. That matters to us as Americans because, despite our myth of log-cabin leaders, fully a third of our presidents were graduates of just three universities: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. And lest you think this statistic is based on the elite presidents of the nation’s first years, you should know that the percentage of recent presidents is even greater.

Of eighteen presidents since 1900, eleven – significantly more than half – graduated from those three schools. In fact, every president since Reagan is an alumnus of either Harvard or Yale. The point is even more obvious on the Supreme Court, where every justice attended at least one of those two schools; some have degrees from both. Clearly, the Ivy League is a major turnstile for admission to top national leadership.

This pattern did not exist for most of the nation’s history, and whether or not it is a good thing is open to debate. In my earlier years, I would have said a definite no. I would have said that it is undemocratic to have so few leaders who come from state schools, as opposed to private ones. I would have said that the difficulties of admission, let alone the cost, excluded too many bright young people.

But the Ivies have changed. More important, they are part of a revolution that is democratizing higher education, making our nation the true meritocracy that Thomas Jefferson and other revolutionaries envisioned. We are becoming a country honestly based on individual achievement, not class structure or inherited wealth.

Ironically, this is at the same time that we have greater income inequality than ever before. But admissions officers at good schools have built a steel wall between them and the development office, and even a huge amount of money from the Koch Brothers et al will not buy admission for a child who isn’t qualified. And if the Ivies decide that they should invest in a poor kid, they will make that happen.

* * *

It wasn’t always true. Money and especially social status equaled opportunity for most of the nation’s history, and the son of a Harvard or Yale man could expect that his sons and grandsons and great-grandsons also would go there.

Harvard is the oldest: it began in 1636 – just four years after Boston’s settlement – and its purpose was to educate clergymen for the new theocracy of Massachusetts. Yale followed almost a hundred years later, in Connecticut in 1716, and New Jersey’s Princeton in 1746. In between, the College of William and Mary began in Virginia, but it never has been considered Ivy League. Its colonial founders were deists, not Puritans, and too liberal for their times – but Virginia politics reversed as slavery dug deeper roots, and after Jefferson’s death, education was not a priority. The elite sent their sons Up North, especially to Princeton.

And they were, of course, sons – and often spoiled sons. Throughout the nineteenth century, many young students were accompanied by male servants who did their cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Our daughter’s first home at Harvard, Wigglesworth Hall in 1991, still reflected this lifestyle in its architecture: her room probably had been built for a servant, as it was outside of the door to the suite. When the roommates rotated for the spring semester, her bedroom was off the main room, which included a working fireplace. We provided wood for it.

The first black men arrived at Harvard shortly after the Civil War; the first to graduate was Chicagoan Richard Theodore Greener, in 1870. The mixed-race nephews of abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke also attended in that era, and one of them, Francis James Grimke, married Charlotte Forten, who probably was the first black teacher of white students. Robert Heberton Terrell, the husband of feminist Mary Church Terrell, earned a Harvard law degree in 1884. Both Terrells were mixed-race, but identified themselves as African American.

You’ll notice, however, that neither Charlotte nor Mary studied there, even though both were at least as brilliant as their husbands. Harvard did add an “annex” for female students in 1879, and by 1894, it was formalized into Radcliffe College – named for Ann Radcliffe, an Englishwoman who endowed the all-male college more than two centuries earlier, in 1643.

Female students lived in segregated status far into the twentieth century. You may remember that in Love Story, Oliver meets Jenny when, for very unusual reasons, he has to cross the street to use Radcliffe’s library. That was set in the 1970s, when Harvard truly began to be a meritocracy, and my husband was a graduate student. Responding to inquiries about affirmative action from Time magazine, one of his professors cited him in saying that they “even took a chance on this kid from Arkansas.”

Still, he is white and has an Anglo name. At the same time, the story circulated around Emerson Hall, home to his philosophy department, that a recent chairman had written a rejection letter to an applicant telling him that, despite good credentials, he would not be admitted because they already had one Jew.

* * *

Harvard’s personal interviews, indeed, began as a way of keeping Jewish men out. Until the early twentieth century, there were no standardized tests or even grade point averages to use as admission norms. Once these began, “too many” Jews and Catholics were achieving higher scores than WASPs, and in the 1920s, Harvard began its interviews. The true aim was to find those who had made the objective cut – and who also would fit in with campus life. “Character” was the key word, and its definition was limited to the country club set. Interview questions even included mothers’ maiden names and whether a family name had been changed.

So, back to my gladsome beginning and how things have changed. Roy does interviews east of Tampa because he identifies with applicants in Polk, Hardee, and Highlands counties, who often have backgrounds similar to his in Arkansas. They are exceptional students in schools that are considered mediocre to poor. We had our East Hillsborough zenith in 1991, when four students from Armwood, Bloomingdale, Brandon, and Plant City were admitted. That never has been replicated, though, and most successful applicants continue to come from private schools such as Berkley or Shorecrest or the IB programs of public schools.

But because the Ivies easily could fill their freshmen classes with students who have perfect SAT scores and grade points as high as the sky, they have broadened their approach to create truly diverse campuses that reflect the realities of our times. Our two newest fit that definition. Both are from public schools. One is a woman of mixed-race ancestry and the other is a Hispanic migrant farmworker. He actually goes home from school and helps his family pick tomatoes. Just a few years ago, neither would have been considered for a moment – and now they both are on their way to Harvard.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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