Larry Summers reveals why universities should ban legacy admissions, scrap elite sports, and make a first-rate education more available to all.
The NYT recently published an article pointing out that only about 6% of undergraduates attend a university with an acceptance rate of less than 25%. Affirmative action only applies to a handful of elite universities because many colleges accept almost everyone who applies.
In a prior conversation with Charles Murray, economist Glenn Loury alluded to the outsized prestige accorded to the right tail of the distribution. Our national fixation with prestige truly astounds. As Wai Wah Chin points out, only about 5% of students who attend a public high school in NYC end up attending one of the 8 elite schools that require testing. We’re perfectly happy obsessing over the top 5% of students while ignoring the far more numerous bottom 95%.
Sadly the entire debate around elite universities misses the point. Roland Fryer wrote an op-ed recently suggesting that the Ivies and other elite universities spend billions to fund feeder schools that would essentially build up the pipeline of human talent among under-represented communities. What would benefit society far more is if we shifted our focus instead towards promoting vocational training and other policies that would contribute to the uplift of a much broader portion of society.
I'm skeptical that letting in a handful more Black students into the top schools each year would make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, though I do believe that effecting broad and foundational changes among the African American community might make a dent towards reducing the dysfunction that's become ever more prevalent among segments of the Black population in this country. As detractors of race based affirmative action like Thomas Sowell have often pointed out, such policies typically benefit the most well off members of the targeted groups. Likewise, Robert Cherry points out that while immigrants make up only around 10% of the total Black American population, they constitute roughly 40% of the Black undergraduate student body at the Ivy League.
Charles Murray argues in Real Education that already far too many people are going to college because of our national fixation with prestige or what might be described as the Yale or jail mindset. By all means get rid of legacy admissions, but ultimately let’s stop obsessing over the Harvards and the Stuyvesants and focus instead on reinvigorating the broader foundation of our population.
I must have missed something in this interview. I thought it was awful. With all due respect he really sounds like a blowhard who lives under an ivy-coated rock. How about a roundtable or debate between him and someone like Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, or anyone else who isn’t scared to say that eliminating race-based admissions is a good thing?
Fantastic interview, Bari. Would love to see more articles about the attendees and topics at Sun Valley. "A move towards subjectivity will end up being a move towards mediocrity" is worth framing.
A few follow up questions for Larry Summers:
1) What does he think of new universities like UATX that are focused on meritocracy and the pursuit of truth, which Harvard and other Ivy League schools abandoned?
2) Now that there are more administrators at Harvard than undergrad students, does he think they have become to powerful relative to the faculty, students, and presidents like him?
3) Given that Larry was fired for wrongthink and the Harvard faculty is 90%+ lefty, what does he think is the best way to restore open inquiry, intellectual diversity, and free speech on campus?
4) Harvard just appointed a new president, Claudine Gay. Does he think she was appointed by merit or DIE? Should she be more carefully scrutinized, given her involvement with several major scandals including Roland Fryer? (details here https://www.karlstack.com/p/the-curious-case-of-claudine-gay)
5) Why should we still revere Harvard when just in the past year their morgue manager was arrested for selling body parts, a leading HBS professor who studies ethics resigned due to fraud, and it hired laughingstocks like Bill De Blasio, Lori Lightfoot, and Brian Stelter? (details here: https://yuribezmenov.substack.com/p/how-to-get-into-harvard-part-3)
6) Larry bragged that Xi Jinping's daughter attended Harvard. Several years ago, the head of Harvard's chemistry department Charles Lieber was found guilty of lying about his work with the CCP. What measures should American universities take to protect IP from foreign adversaries like the CCP's Thousand Talents program?
Your “victimhood Olympics” question was an excellent one and he danced around a non-answer.
Summers manages to dodge most of the hard questions in this interview with "that's a question we should be asking." So much of the conversation around elite schools focuses on the top and the bottom but completely ignores the middle class who are sacrificing time, money, and emotional resources to provide opportunities like that archeological dig or an SAT prep class or to live in a tiny home but send their kids to an excellent school or to have a parent stay home with children for much of their youth.
God help the middle class kid with married parents who work in mid level jobs. Woe betide kids who just worked their butt off in a public school to achieve straight As in AP classes, high SAT test scores, leadership in extra curriculars, service, etc. That's a kid who has shown they know how to hustle, how to manage time, and how to achieve what teachers ask of them across the board. I'm not sure why their lack of a dead sibling, a parent with cancer, a tragic divorce, or living in poverty makes them less qualified to attend an elite school and less worthy of financial support if they manage to get in.
But let us be sure to keep football and soccer programs, because that's how we show educational equity!
My husband went to an ivy and he was rather poor growing up. (He was not a legacy).
He says not all legacy admissions are just buying your way in. A lot of children of legacys come from smart parents who can get in on their own merits but don't have Rockefeller money to donate a wing.
Banning legacy's is going to prevent a lot of worthy students from getting an elite education.
It will not stop uber wealthy family's from making a giant donation and getting their child in that way.
Also when are people going to wake up and realize the world isn't fair? Some people are just smarter, richer, better looking and good at rowing boats.
The problem is that progressive and identity-consumed culture on elite campuses does lead to a victim/oppression Olympics. Leftists use self-reported marginalized identities for self-advancement. It's a status game. For example, huge numbers of students now pretend to be LGBTQ, either to increase their admission odds or to gain social status as an oppressed person. A whopping 28.9% of Gen Z students at Harvard claims to be LGBTQ. At Brown it's even worse: 38%.
It pays to be part of a marginalized group and a member of the perpetually aggrieved. This creates the competitive urge to be positioned advantageously in a victimhood hierarchy. The Oppression Olympics is the arena wherein this competition of victimhood takes place, using identity politics and intersectionality to establish the “winners” of this grotesque theatre of the absurd.
The parental and student obsession with getting into an "elite" university is one of the biggest wastes of time and resources out there. I have 2 degrees from average universities and 1 from a more elite one. The status of the university meant and still means nothing in my 30 year career, and I am sure I am not the only one. Stop the madness.
A question I believe relevant is how does Harvard justify a $50 billion endowment. Helping students with under $60k household income is a pittance. They probably pay their investment advisors a couple hundred million. Redistribute the wealth, or is that just nonsensical talk?
With two kids in college and having gone through the process twice over the last 4 years, I can tell you there is no such thing as legacy admissions unless you are uber wealthy. You have to donate tens of millions dollars. We know several families who have donated to and raised money for their elite alma maters for years — to the tune of millions of dollars — whose highly qualified kids were rejected. These universities are missing out on a lot of great kids, and killing their fundraising in the process.
Not only that, but schools are disincentivizing regular alumni to donate as well. Why would I give money to a school with a massive endowment knowing my kid won’t get in anyway? And many of the students they are admitting now will have no loyalty or connection to the school. They will complain they were marginalized or mistreated during their time there, and never fundraise or donate a nickel. It’s already happening and will only get worse. I guess they don’t care.
Jonah Goldberg wrote an awesome piece on legacy admissions:
I agree that Larry Summers sounds misguided in this interview.
His response about sports, “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.”
Is so absurd. Because some kids have the opportunity to play squash or row they shouldn’t be able to use that as a skill to get into an elite college? Then eliminate the rowing team at Harvard. What a stupid thing to say from an actual former president of the most prestigious school in the US.
It’s like middle schools eliminating algebra to level the playing field. I genuinely think we might be living in the Second Dark Ages. Not joking.
“Larry Summers reveals why …” — weird choice of verb, over, say, “argues”. Immediately makes it sound like this will be a propaganda piece.
Also, he doesn’t even really argue anything. He simply dismisses arguments of others and asserts his own with little evidence. Weak!
This guy is a douche. Nothing to say, nothing there at all.
I'm surprised Larry Summers did not comment on the layers and layers of administrators prevalent in higher education. Students and their families are now paying more for poorly educated bureaucrats to tell them what to think than for qualified faculty to teach them how to think.
New admission guidelines:
1. No name, SS# only
This interview is a huge fail for Bari and The FP. You had a one-on-one with one of the most powerful men in American education and you allowed him to punt on every question of consequence. To paraphrase the great American film Billy Madison: everyone is now dumber for having listened to this exchange.