Harvard, free tuition and affirmative action

A rump slate which ran for Harvard Board of Overseers had the excellent idea that the university should offer free tuition. This seems only reasonable: no institution with  multi-billion dollar endowment should be taking money from middle-class families and/or having its students wash dishes on Work-Study.

The self-same group had a second good idea: that Harvard should stop discriminating against Asian Americans. The Nonprofiteer doesn’t know whether the university in fact does so, but she wouldn’t be surprised: just as the 1950s featured Jew quotas, reflecting the fear that Jews would take over if they/we were allowed to compete fairly, there’s a certain casual assumption in academic circles that any institution without a large population of stereotypical Asian American students—hard-studying successful young people pushed toward academic achievement by their parents—must surely be using a quota. Sounds right to the Nonprofiteer, who notes that there are now a disproportionate number of Jews in academe and that the world does not seem to have ended. The same would/will be true if/when admissions offices stop controlling the number of Asian Americans in any given entering class.

What a shame the group had to couple these two fine ideas with a really terrible one, namely, that Harvard should abandon affirmative action once tuition is free, allowing diversity to occur “naturally.” And throwing in the issue of an Asian quota is a splendid example of “Let’s you and him fight,” as if the seats which would otherwise be taken by Asian Americans are being stolen by Black and Latino people; whereas it’s much more likely that those seats are occupied by legacy admissions, the children of alumni who disproportionately represent the historic WASP ascendancy.

People opposed to affirmative action—by which the Nonprofiteer means a concerted effort to include Black and Latino people—must willfully blind themselves to the overwhelming social science evidence that Black people are subject to a particularly virulent form of discrimination against them—one the more vicious for often being unconscious. Give hiring partners two resumes, one with a name like Justin Barnes and another with a name like Kwame Appiah, and they’ll pick Justin every time. Same with landlords. Same with banks. Same with mortgage companies. Do we really believe admissions officers are somehow magically immune? The Nonprofiteer—an erstwhile admissions officer herself—seriously doubts it. And in the midst of a Presidential campaign marked by the worst outbreak of nativism since the 1920s, Latinos experience something similar.

As long as Black and Latino people are subjected to race prejudice, affirmative action—meaning “When all things are equal hire/rent to/lend to/admit the Black or Latino candidate”—will be necessary. No one else has a “right” to that job/house/loan/seat, and unless opening opportunities for Black and Latino people is top of mind and affirmatively acted upon, we will never escape the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and hatred of The Other.

So free tuition by all means. And absolutely stop discriminating against Asian Americans. But let’s stop pretending that either of those good behaviors requires or allows the end of affirmative action.

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    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at DuelingCritics.net. Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick & Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at KellyNFP@yahoo.com.

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