It’s time for Harvard to grow up, and double the school size

Harvard has girlbossed too close to the sun.

Is there anything morally wrong? How does one define ‘bigoted’? These aren’t just abstract questions anymore, as the institution of affirmative action is likely to get dismissed by Harvard after the Supreme Court heard Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, in which the plaintiff seeks to dismantle racial preferences entirely as a method to admit students.

To be clear, I am of the opinion that this is entirely the fault of Harvard (UNC shares some blame too) for creating too hostile an environment to well-deserving students. Their hostility towards better education will now hurt many minority communities unless they can find proxies for race, which is not simple.

The legality of affirmative action was held up in 2003 in Grutter v Bollinger when the majority opinion stated that 25 years from that point:

It was clear that affirmative action was never going to last forever, and universities like Harvard should’ve taken that chance to be prepared for the day it was struck down.

Affirmative Action works

The entire point of the case reflects on the harms that affirmative action has to minority groups. The plaintiffs are successful students of largely of Asian descent who say race played a role in being rejected from the college.

Why do we even have affirmative action? It has had a positive effect on integrating Black Americans into the larger society. Several studies have shown benefits.

Studies suggest that affirmative action can provide minority students more confidence and motivation to succeed. Although by ‘minority group’ we mean Black Americans mainly. And it is important that we can find ways to everyone to succeed and build systems that maintain this progress.

But you shouldn’t pit people against each other

One study suggests that the number of Black students admitted to Harvard will be slashed roughly by two-thirds, a sharp cut. This will also hurt Hispanic students slightly. But this may have large benefits for Asian students, whose acceptances will grow by about half.

Asians will be 37% of a paltry 3% of applicants that are accepted to Harvard. Each student class is barely even 2000 students. So in absolute terms the student population will roughly go from 280 to 80 Black students and from 480 to 740 Asian students.

The biggest problem in this math is pitting various people against each other. With only 2,000 seats and 60,000 applications of course you’re going to get people who will see this as a zero-sum game. If a Black student gets accepted, an Asian student doesn’t.

In that kind of world, of course they were going to file a lawsuit. Harvard’s devotion to gatekeeping set the conditions to ruin race-conscious admissions for every other college in the country, because the rest of them weren’t setting the competitive temperature so high.

Harvard’s net education

Is Harvard actually a good school? Many would say it’s excellent. If that’s the case, it seems immoral that they would only allow so few to have access to it. Affirmative action is often painted as some sort of generosity, but admitting each year sounds stingy. On the net, do they actually do more good the University of Central Florida, which has about thirty times more Black students?

Put another way, does a Harvard education make a Black student thirty times more successful than a student from UCF? Maybe. But then that becomes an optimization question. If Harvard accepted 560 Black students, would they be fifteen times more successful or more? If we could quantity success somehow, how many Black students should Harvard accept to maximize net success? Find that number and then admit that many students.

We should double the population of Harvard

Let’s say after all our math it turns out that we find the optimal number of students. Harvard cannot tweak the racial percentages to achieve that number of Black students. One easy way to get around this is to actually increase the size of the university. It would be fairly easy! Harvard only accepts 2000 students each year.

If they accepted 4000 students, that would still be a fairly small number. Maybe they can’t do it all in one year, but it doesn’t seem like they’re trying at all to educate more students. If only 4% of each class was Black, Harvard would need to grow 3.5x to get the same number of Black students.

I actually visited Harvard last month. I grabbed a slice at Otto and watched the local production of In The Heights.

Harvard is fairly constricted in sprawling out. It’s in walking distance to MIT and Boston. They don’t have much unused space. But that doesn’t mean there’s a limit on growth.

Widener Library (above ground)

Harvard’s buildings are historic and could easily be modernized to take better advantage of the existing space. They could double the number of floors on each structure. The Widener Library has ten floors underground with a maze of books. Harvard is already used to growing pains and has found solutions before.

Growing pains are real. My alma mater doubled the student population over ten years and there’s definitely been issues related to parking and housing and everything else. There are still issues. But we’ve had the disadvantage of being in southern New Jersey with a small endowment.

But Harvard is in Cambridge with plenty of infrastructure and a massive endowment.

When my alma mater expanded, and needed more land, it bought a ton of acres several miles away, calling that the West Campus. Not every student has a car and so they’ve put together a shuttle system with vans. Farther away destinations include campuses in Camden and I don’t think there’s a shuttle to there. It’s not really that convenient but we’ve managed to make it work.

Harvard has access to an already-existing transit system thanks to the MBTA. Students already get on the Red Line to go down to Boston or up to Alewife. Then there’s a number of other lines they can transfer to as well.

Seems like there’s plenty of room for new trains

The MBTA is also expanding. While I was in Boston I took the Green D-Branch train to Union Square, one of the new locations.

So it’s not absurd for Harvard to consider constructing buildings in Alewife, a new “Harvard West” campus, or to push even farther west with Red Line extensions. The MBTA GLX project is not even $10 billion. Harvard could afford to build their own infrastructure, since they could fund it through expanded tuition income and use their endowment.

Diversity & inclusion

It’s important when discussing university admissions to keep merit at the forefront. We have a lot of problems in the world today, and if we believe that Harvard is a good school then we need to ensure the best students are given the tools they need to tackle these challenges.

As such, we should not ignore the effect that legacy and athletic admissions have on the student body. In my view, legacy students should not be guaranteed a seat. They should have to earn it and many will not. That’s fine with me.

But we also need to define a broad view of success. Diversity is good for everyone. “Study after study confirms that diversity in the workforce contributes to the bottom line.”. It’s also important to ensure we can trust one another:

But what is the right way to do this? Polls show that most people do not want race to be a factor in deciding student admissions. I’m sure in that question the pollee is leaving something unstated: “If that person gets in, it’s not fair that my child doesn’t get in.”

In a world of abundance, we don’t need to take food away from you to give it to someone in need. We do grow and produce more than enough to feed everyone. College admissions don’t work like that. In particular, admissions are not a commodity: UCF is not seen as an adequate substitute.

All the same, universities like my alma mater have managed to grow their educational achievement while keeping tuition stable. Looking at race demographics, it is not too far away from New Jersey as a whole. More can and should be done there.

But diversity & inclusion needs to factor in the inclusion part. Creating a tiny elite community behind a gate is undoubtedly going to make people angry. Harvard has gained a reputation as being an excellent school, and telling students they can’t attend is undoubtedly going to affect a lot of deserving students.

Post-Affirmative Action world

Noah Smith speculates the state of college admissions in future decades. While affirmative action makes a lot of sense in helping Black students, it hasn’t made sense when applied more broadly. In the current court case, it appears to have served as a liability. Regardless of how Asian Americans respond to polls, Asian students are not a monolith. The plaintiffs do have standing regardless of the views of a larger Asian community.

Affirmative action, and similar racial preferences, have been banned in some states for years. It hasn’t led to drops in diverse communities. It’s not a guarantee that the percentage of Black students at Harvard will drop to 4%. In addition, as observed during the case:

Just removing legacy status could be a way to improve diversity, and we should push Harvard to do that. If Harvard students are supposed to be successful, that’s one of the least progressive policies that can be enacted. It literally helps the wealthy elites over the poor working class student.

To be clear, we need to do more to help Black students get a great education and be successful. Harvard’s current approach is likely to be deemed illegal and they’ll have to find a new way to educate roughly 280 Black students. They will probably develop some overly complicated formula based on income that won’t be effective in meeting their goals

The simplest answer is to grow the entire student body. Not only will the same number learn, but many others will now have access to an elite school. Progressive education is about abundance, making sure everyone has access.

Harvard has the means and the motive. Perhaps a ruling against them will provide the opportunity to become a school that lives up to its reputation.

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Nick Felker

Social Media Expert -- Rowan University 2017 -- IoT & Assistant @ Google