How Some Would Level the Playing Field: Free Harvard Degrees

Stephanie Saul, New York Times, January 14, 2016

Should Harvard be free?

That is the provocative question posed by a slate of candidates running for the Board of Overseers at Harvard, which helps set strategy for the university. They say Harvard makes so much money from its $37.6 billion endowment that it should stop charging tuition to undergraduates.

But they have tied the notion to another, equally provocative question: Does Harvard shortchange Asian-Americans in admissions?

Their argument is that if Harvard were free, more highly qualified students from all backgrounds would apply, and the university would no longer have trouble balancing its class for racial or ethnic diversity–making sure, they say, that Asian-Americans do not lose out.

The slate of five candidates was put together by Ron Unz, a conservative California software entrepreneur who has sponsored ballot initiatives opposing bilingual education. Although the campaign, “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard,” includes one left-leaning member–the consumer advocate Ralph Nader–Mr. Unz and the other three candidates have written or testified extensively against affirmative action, opposing race-based admissions.

Their positions are in lock step with claims in a federal lawsuit accusing the university of discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions. Harvard has denied the accusations.

Coincidence or not, the plaintiffs in that case are seeking from Harvard exactly what the Unz slate wants: disclosure of data showing how the university’s freshman class is selected each year.

The politically charged data holds the potential to reveal whether Harvard bypasses better-qualified Asian-American candidates in favor of whites, blacks, Hispanics and the children of the wealthy and powerful, the group argues.

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If Harvard abolishes tuition for undergrads, Mr. Nader said, “it will ricochet across the Ivy League.”

Maybe. Officials at Harvard suggested that even if the slate were to win, the idea is a nonstarter, pointing out that the endowment is split into thousands of funds designated for specific uses that have nothing to do with undergraduates.

“There is a common misconception that endowments, including Harvard’s, can be accessed like bank accounts, used for anything at any time as long as funds are available,” Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesman, said. “In reality, Harvard’s flexibility in spending from the endowment is limited by the fact that it must be maintained in perpetuity and that it is largely restricted by the explicit wishes of those who contributed the endowed funds.”

Mr. Neal also said that although tuition is high, Harvard, like many universities with large endowments, is generous with financial aid, awarding more than $1.4 billion to undergraduates in the past decade.

But Mr. Unz says that even with potential aid, prospective low-income applicants may be discouraged by the published tuition of $45,000 a year.

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Mr. Unz, whose 2012 data analysis of admissions at Harvard and other Ivy League institutions is cited in the case against the university, said his slate was not pressing to abolish affirmative action at Harvard, but was only seeking more information. But several members of the group are known for their past advocacy against using race in admissions.

One is Lee C. Cheng, a Harvard graduate and chief legal counsel for the online electronics retailer Newegg.com. He is co-founder of an organization that filed a brief in support of the white plaintiff in the lawsuit against the University of Texas that is before the Supreme Court.

Mr. Cheng is also quoted in the suit against Harvard, which was brought by Students for Fair Admissions.

Another member of the slate is Stuart Taylor Jr., a former reporter for The New York Times who got his law degree from Harvard and is co-author of a 2012 book contending that affirmative action harms minority students. And another is Stephen Hsu, a physicist and vice president at Michigan State University who has written against the use of race in college admissions.

Mr. Nader, who also got his law degree from Harvard, said the admissions system has been “bollixed up for decades” by legacies and other preferences.

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The Board of Overseers, with 30 members elected for rotating six-year terms, is the second most powerful board at the university. Members are generally elected from nominees selected by the Harvard Alumni Association.

To be placed on the ballot, other candidates must get petitions signed this month by 201 Harvard graduates.

Mr. Unz, who these days is busy collecting signatures, believes his group stands a good chance. Part of his strategy apparently relies on low turnout among the 320,000 or so alumni, combined with the hope that an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Asian-American graduates will be energized by the “Fair Harvard” plank.

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