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Harvard Joins the Club


Trinity Class of 2017(Class of 2017, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences)

Hey, Harvard, welcome to the club!

News broke last week that Harvard’s incoming freshman class is “majority minority” for the first time in the nearly 400-year history of the nation’s oldest and arguably most prestigious university.

Some of us have been there for decades — Trinity has enrolled a majority of black and Hispanic students since the late 1990’s.  But, of course, it’s not news unless Harvard does it.  And that’s a good thing for higher education since other universities are likely to follow Harvard’s lead.

In the same week that Harvard’s increased diversity made the news, headlines also announced that for the first time in the history of the United States Military Academy at West Point, an African American Woman — Cadet Simone Askew of Northern Virginia — will lead the corps of cadets.  Congratulations, Captain Askew!

These two important news items followed more alarming news earlier in the week — the Department of Justice appears to be hiring lawyers for the particular purpose of challenging affirmative action practices among colleges and universities.  The news is alarming because it’s part of a deliberate pattern in the Trump Administration to emphasize rolling-back and takng away rights and benefits that were the result of a century-long struggle to achieve some modicum of national progress in civil rights and simple justice for all people once denied access to institutions and opportunities.  As I wrote on this blog last week, at every turn, whether the topic is black college students or transgender military personnel or immigrants or Muslims or others who are not part of the Norman Rockwell-esque Trump idea of America (the discriminatory, retrograde and repressive message of “Make America Great Again”), this administration seems to stand for nothing other than inhumane actions against the very people our public officials are sworn to protect under the Constitution and laws of the land.

Many commentators on this topic have rightfully pointed out that (a) the Supreme Court has ruled several times on affirmative action and every time has found the practice lawful, within reasonable guidelines, and (b) students of color are NOT the problem in elite collegiate admissions, but rather, the longstanding practice of legacy admissions and the role of major financial contributions to secure seats for wealthy children.  It’s also worth simply noting that there are plenty of seats in higher education, many of which remain unfilled; the problem is not that there’s a lack of seats for everyone, but rather, there’s an insane and educationally warped fixation on a few elite colleges and universities and that very small subset of higher education is the focus of the affirmative action debate, even as it is also the focus of the debate over access for low income students.  (See Jeff Selingo on this topic.) Those two debates cancel each other out, ensuring that the status quo prevails.  [Note:  Harvard is currently the defendant in an affirmative action suit by Asian American students.]

Sociology is a powerful force, and regardless of the roadblocks the Justice Department or others might try to erect, the plain fact is that our national demographics are changing, heading for a national census in which persons of color will be the majority at mid-century, and this change will affect most colleges and universities in the decades to come.

I’ll come back to the topic of affirmative action and promotion of diversity in higher education in my next blog.  For now, I’d like to return to this business of proclaiming a “majority minority” and offer a few words of advice from long experience with the phenomenon of shifting demographics on a college campus.  Yes, I know, how dare I offer Harvard advice…. well, as we old Latin scholars say, “Experientia doceet.”  Experience teaches, and in this topic, Trinity has a lot of experience.

So, Harvard, just three points to consider:

1.  Get rid of “majority minority” and that whole “minority” word….  Students of color are your new majority, and that’s great!  Many of us retired the word “minority” a long time ago to refer to students of any race or ethnicity, and Harvard should show some linguistic leadership by retiring that word forever as a description of a person of color.

2.  Diversify the faculty and staff….  I do not know Harvard’s faculty profile as I write this (I will find out) but a more diverse student body needs and deserves an equally diverse faculty, and that’s very hard to achieve and takes a long time in some disciplines.  Start now!  And this includes tenured positions, and especially in fields where faculty of color are woefully under-represented.  This also means using the leadership that Harvard brings to discussions like this to focus on opening up the Ph.D. pipelines.

3.  Tell the story of diversity with conviction, without apology, and with data….  The ugliest part of the attack on affirmative action is the canard that less-qualified students of color are taking seats from more-qualified white students.  That’s simply not true, but we have not done a good enough job presenting the great stories of academic excellence and success among the increasingly large populations of students of color throughout higher education.  Our students are ambitious, hard-working and powerful intellectually and academically.  Tell their stories at every opportunity.

Finally, I hope Harvard will lead the way for other universities to step up their game when it comes to enrolling diverse student bodies.  In a study I conducted last year of major public universities in the Washington region, all were in single digits on the enrollment of black students, with the exception of the public HBCU’s.  Many elite private universities have the same pattern.  We hear a lot of talk of enrollment of “low income” students which is a surrogate for Pell grantees which is a surrogate for students of color.  But beyond the talk, there’s not much change in the data.

More to come on these topics…. a new academic year is coming fast, and the issues for higher ed are looming large.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: