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(Photo courtesy of Lawrence H. Summers)

Rethinking Higher Ed with Harvard’s Former President

Larry Summers reveals why universities should ban legacy admissions, scrap elite sports, and make a first-rate education more available to all.

Last week I found myself in Sun Valley, Idaho, at a conference with a lot of big wigs. Among them was Larry Summers—an economist, the Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton, and a former president of Harvard University. The timing was fortuitous.

Last month, Harvard went before the Supreme Court to defend its race-based admission policies. The school lost the case, thus overturning the legality of affirmative action. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that those admissions programs “cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

The ruling has sparked a debate in American life about the future of higher education, and it’s caused many to question another admissions policy that numerous American universities have long taken for granted: legacy admissions, the policy of giving preference to college applicants whose family has already attended the school. In light of the Supreme Court ruling, legacy admissions have been scrapped at top schools including Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, and just this week, Wesleyan University.

So I wanted to sit down with Larry Summers to talk about the future of American higher education, whether eliminating legacy admissions actually goes far enough, what he thinks admission departments will do in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, and what he might have done differently as president of Harvard if he could go back in time. And lastly—what makes American higher education worth saving in the first place?

Click to listen to the episode here or read an adapted transcript below. See you in the comments. —BW

On banning legacy admissions:

BW: Right after the decision comes down from the court, you publish a column in The Washington Post with this headline: “The affirmative action ruling is big. Now elite colleges need to think bigger.” And you started the column this way: “Unless universities now respond dramatically and innovatively, the likely result will be the degradation of an American university system that is the envy of the world.” In this column, you give a laundry list of reforms that you think elite colleges in particular need to make: ban legacy admissions, eliminate what you call aristocratic sports like crew and fencing, and train college admissions counselors to detect when something is inauthentic. I want to go through those one by one. Let’s start with banning legacy admissions. 

LS: I don’t think it serves a useful social function. I think it is unfair, and I think it sends a bad signal about the institutional citizenship of elite education. And at a time when the issue of estrangement of elites is so big in our politics, I think the right thing for our leading universities to do is what MIT has already done, what Johns Hopkins has already done, what Amherst has already done. I hope everybody follows and that legacy admissions are gone two years from now. And I think if they are gone ten years from now, people will wonder how they ever lasted as long as they did. 

BW: There was an interesting op-ed in the Times in the past few days in which this Princeton professor defended legacy admissions on the grounds that legacy students, because they have privilege, because they have deep social and cultural connections, are part of the reason less advantaged students get so much out of these elite schools. Not to mention the fact that those are the families that give the libraries and endow all of these things. What do you make of that? 

LS: Nobody is saying we should discriminate against children whose parents have been fortunate or very successful, just that we should not discriminate in their favor in a major way. When thinking about my kids, I’d rather they go to school with the kids who are most ambitious and most hungry and are going to do the most going forward rather than the children who are the parents of the people who did the most years ago. So I don’t think that’s a serious argument for maintaining legacies as part of our system. I think legacy admissions is a mistake, and universities should change their minds and stop pursuing the policy. 

On eliminating elite sports:

BW: Let’s talk about eliminating aristocratic sports. For the kid that has worked really hard as a rower, what do you say to them? What do you say to that kid who says, “Why are you picking on me?” And why aren’t other sports like basketball and soccer being eliminated?

LS: Look, I think the difference between some sports and others is that in some sports, the vast majority of Americans can play, and can be trained to play and to develop their talent. There are just vastly more American high schools that have basketball teams than have squash teams. My particular question involves sports where the ability to access training and to achieve excellence really does depend heavily on family resources. 

On training admissions counselors: 

BW: You also propose training college admissions counselors to detect when something is inauthentic, which seems to me very challenging. How can you detect authenticity from a 650-word common app application essay? 

LS: I don’t think it’s easy. I think there are some things you can do. Did you receive personalized tutoring for the SATs? Did you have a coach who helped you prepare this essay? I think you can ask these questions because the answers won’t be perfectly informative, but the demonstration that you care will, I think, have some positive benefit. I think that admissions officers do look through purchased experiences. What about the kid who did a really interesting thing and spent six weeks on an archeological dig in North Africa in the summer of their junior year of high school? Is that a really interesting, valuable experience our class wants to include, or is that a particular bauble that their parents’ good fortune enabled them to obtain? That’s a question of balance, but I think we should be tilting more towards regarding it as a bauble that the parents’ privilege enabled them to obtain. 

On the victimhood Olympics:

BW: One thing that you write in this piece is that universities should more explicitly consider family disadvantage in selecting applicants, and I worry that will lead to a reorientation around victimhood and suffering rather than academic excellence. Is there a way out of, frankly, the victimhood Olympics that’s in so much of our culture?

LS: Since Harvard put in its financial aid program, the share of our students who come from backgrounds where their parents didn’t go to college or where they’re in the lower part of the income distribution has gone up quite a bit. And I’m not aware of any real concern that our admissions process has become a victimhood Olympics. But you’re raising exactly the right kind of question, and this is going to require a great deal of thought. The core point, and this is maybe what I want listeners to take away, is are we trying to maximize how much we do for people to have more opportunity that they otherwise would not have? Is that our test? Or is our test what specific demographic percentages we’re going to have of which group? And I believe that the first is the right question for our great universities to be asking themselves. And if they focus on that question, I think my recommendations are good ones. Maybe there’ll be other, better recommendations. But before you have a chance of getting better answers, you have to ask better questions. 

On expanding class sizes:

BW: The last argument you make in this piece is about expanding class size and doing outreach to lower income schools. How big is the current Harvard freshman class? How big do you think it should be? How do you hold in tension the fact that many people want to go to schools like Harvard and other Ivy League schools, other elite schools, because they are elite, because they are selective? 

LS: It’s a little bit like the question of how much weight I should lose. I suppose I could lose too much, but it doesn’t seem like it’s the pressing danger from where I was starting. And so if Harvard has not grown, or other leading universities have not grown at all in 30 or 40 years, it’s hard for me to believe that if they grew at the same pace that their applicant pool grew, or they grew at the same pace that the American population of 18-year-olds grew. Would I worry about growth over a 15-year period by a third? I’m sure I would not worry about that. If you said you were going to double the size in 15 years, I would think that was something you needed to think about carefully, though I wouldn’t be sure that was excessive. But starting from where we are now, the direction of movement is clear.

On removing standardized tests:

BW: There has been a move increasingly on the part of elite colleges to get rid of the SAT, and that’s also trickled down to a lot of public elite schools like Stuyvesant in New York, for example, putting pressure on them to get rid of the one meritocratic test that allows admissions into these schools. What do you think of that trend? 

LS: I think it’s very dangerous. I’m sure the SAT can be usefully reviewed and improved. The SAT was established in service of opportunity so that kids with ability could demonstrate their ability, even if they didn’t have anybody vouching for them. We need more and better tests for measuring excellence, not to move away from tests. A move towards subjectivity will end up being a move towards mediocrity. 

On his time as president of Harvard:

BW: So we’ve talked about your proposed solutions, and I think you make a very compelling argument about why these should be backed. But my immediate reaction talking to you now is: you were president of Harvard for five years. You had the power to enact these changes. Why didn’t you enact these reforms when you could have? 

LS: Anybody who has spent a lot of time or much time at all in a leading university knows there are a lot of limits on the power of a president. These are the faculty. These are the trustees. These are the wide range of constituencies. We actually did, during my time, do a historic thing to orient around opportunity by eliminating any cost for families earning under $60,000, and by setting up a summer program for such students, and by causing the admissions process to take much closer attention to disadvantage than it had previously. Should we have done more? I ask myself that question all the time. Quite possibly the answer is yes. But these issues, in many cases, appear different and with a different degree of urgency today. And there were a different set of constraints at that time. But when I look back, do I wish I had been able to do more on some of these things? Of course I do. 

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