Susan Estrich: Harvard wins on diversity

Estrich: On Tuesday, the judge cleared Harvard of charges of discrimination against Asian American applicants. ...

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich commentary
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Diversity means just that.
Getting into college isn't just a numbers game.
No one has a "right" to get into Harvard.
Bill Fitzsimmons, the longtime dean of admissions at Harvard, is one of the most honorable, thoughtful and smart guys I've met in 35-plus years in academia. I've been holding my breath since the lawsuit was filed and then through the trial, fearing he would be blamed for having year after year brilliantly assembled a group of young people who go on to change the world of politics, science and the arts.
On Tuesday, the judge cleared Harvard of charges of discrimination against Asian American applicants.
Radcliffe used to be the "women's college" at Harvard until it was formerly integrated into the university. I am a proud recipient of the Radcliffe Alumnae Achievement Award. I am also a proud Radcliffe reject.
Upset doesn't begin to describe the rejection. Kids who hadn't done nearly as well as me got in. Stupid athletes got in. Rich kids with tutors to teach them how to take the tests got in. Kids who were "legacies" got in. But those kids weren't Jewish girls whose mothers were secretaries and who had never taken an Advanced Placement class because they didn't have them for social sciences. I remember the ADL holding a meeting to discuss the problem: Many colleges still had quotas for Jews, and with the beginnings of race-based affirmative action, Jews were getting caught in the squeeze. I went to college with a huge chip on my shoulder that took a long time to get rid of.
I first met Dean Fitzsimmons not at some Harvard big whig event, not because we are part of some Harvard elite but because his brother was in the state legislature when my candidate was running and serving as governor. We talked about my nephew, a working-class kid who has faced some tough times, and Bill said that was just the kind of kid he was looking for. (He chose New York University.) And we both laughed because that's who I had been so many years ago. They weren't looking for me then.
What makes Harvard special, I have come to conclude, is not the faculty, which I was honored to be part of, not the campus, where I tried to think great thoughts, not even the prestige and legitimacy that instantly envelops you but the students who end up going there. Well-angled, not well-rounded, is the description I've heard. What makes studying there special is who you meet and how you grow. Many kids still go to high schools filled with people just like us. Harvard isn't like that — for anybody. So long as we are teaching humanities and social sciences, we need diversity or we fail.
I cannot imagine teaching a class on politics or history or the arts in front of students who all bring the same stories to the table, the same background to the hearing of it. Imagine teaching Brown v. Board of Education to a class with no blacks. Would you say that the discussion is likely to be excellent?
Harvard makes mistakes. There are many thousands of us who might consider ourselves to be just that. With its overly large lectures and dependence on grad students to teach, it is hardly the only place or best place to learn. But it is a world in which a bunch of well-angled kids, most of whom are neither legacies nor 1-percenters, find not just their own "tribe" but almost every other one in the world.

Susan Estrich can be reached at

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