A Massive Book on the History of Higher Education Makes You Wonder If It’s Getting Better, or Worse

Writing a comprehensive history of American higher education from colonial times up to the Second World War is a monumental undertaking, but if anyone is up to the task it’s Penn State University professor Roger Geiger, perhaps the country’s leading scholar on the history of post-secondary education in America. 

Geiger’s new book The History of American Higher Education is the most fact-filled treatment of its subject to date, and will likely remain the standard work for years to come. 

In over 560 pages, Geiger recounts the history of over 150 American colleges, universities, and professional schools. There is a great deal of emphasis on the personalities of the presidents of the institutions surveyed, and a focus on the changing roles and diverse clientele that various institutions of higher learning have served. 

I’d like to focus on just one of the many topics that comes up in this history—the conflict between aiming for a purely meritocratic university within a context of academic freedom and an academic institution in which other concerns are permitted to trump merit and freedom. 

In the 1920s, Harvard’s president, A. Lawrence Lowell, instituted a Jewish ceiling quota of 15 percent for incoming undergraduates, much like the informal quotas today on Asian students. For many years, admissions officers continued the policy of limiting the proportion of Jewish students. Their concern seems to have been that alumni contributions and support from the old Brahmin elite would dry up if Harvard became “too Jewish.” 

Lowell’s successor, James B. Conant was determined to raise the academic standards of the undergraduate students at Harvard, and to this end instituted three important changes.   

First, he offered more generous scholarships to academically gifted students from poor backgrounds thus enabling many more to attend Harvard. Second, his admissions committee began to place greater emphasis on examinations—including the SAT—and less on interviews. Finally, he sought to cast a wider meritocratic net by encouraging students from outside the Northeast to apply to Harvard.  

Conant also approved of the decision of Harvard’s medical and law schools to admit women. Meritocratic enhancement and demographic diversity were thus goals in harmony with one another in Conant’s time, unlike today where they acrimoniously clash. 

The Jewish quota, however, remained for years after he left Harvard in 1953. 

Historians Morton and Phyllis Keller explain Conant’s ambivalence towards Jews at Harvard in their book Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America’s University:

“Conant’s pro-quota position in the early 1920s [when he was a professor in Harvard’s chemistry department], his preference for more students from small towns and cities in the South and West [where few Jews resided], and his cool response to the plight of the Jewish academic refugees from Hitler suggest that he shared the mild anti-semitism common to his social group and time. But his commitment to meritocracy made him more ready [than many] to accept able Jews as students and faculty.” 

In reading about an academic visionary like Conant, one is drawn to a comparison with the state of the academy in our own time.  

Presidents of colleges and universities today often boast about their achievements in fostering “diversity” in their faculty and student body, a term that usually means they have increased the number of blacks and Latinos on campus and in the faculty lounge. They may also boast of their success in fostering greater gender diversity, especially in STEM fields. 

“Diversity,” however, almost never means an increase in the number of military veterans, political conservatives, economic libertarians, born-again Christians from the Bible Belt, people who have grown up on farms or ranches, Mormons, pro-life women, etc.   

Our leading research universities, including Harvard, have come a long way from the vision of meritocrats like Conant, and on balance, it is hard to say they are better for the journey.   

While the Jewish ceiling quota is gone, it has been replaced by an informal limit on the number of Asians admitted. Asian students with stellar high school records are often rejected at institutions like Harvard and other Ivy League universities because they come from what is seen as an “over-represented” group. From the standpoint of the racial and ethnic bean counters there are “too many” of them.  

Although academic administrators will deny it, most of the elite colleges and universities in America engage in a covert form of what could be called “informal race norming” whereby applicants are informally grouped into broad ethno-racial categories (black, white, Asian, Latino), and their chances for admission contingent on where they stand academically not in terms of all applicants but in terms only of the others in their specific ethno-racial pool.   

It’s a travesty of the meritocratic principle. 

Clever supporters of such practices try to get around the high level of public support for merit-only selection—and the distaste many have for race-based admissions—by redefining merit to include “diversity enhancement.” The value of increased diversity of more “under-represented minorities” on campus is supposedly a legitimate part of their merit.   

This, it is claimed, parallels how we greet the fact that an applicant may be a great violinist, ballerina, or other non-academic star. But the public doesn’t buy it and doesn’t consider being of this or that race or ethnicity meritorious by itself.  

Worse still, when differential standards of admission are applied to people from different ethno-racial groups, students on campus form images in their minds of academically superior and academically inferior groups (with Asians and whites in the former category, blacks and Latinos in the latter).  

Needless to say, this is not a healthy social situation and results in heightened self-segregation on campus.  

It also creates the problem of “tainted credentials.” When Thomas Sowell entered Harvard on the G.I. Bill after the Korean War, blacks were accepted under the same terms as whites. There was no affirmation action, no racial double standards, and no tainted credentials. When Sowell graduated in 1958 magna cum laude with a degree in economics, it was before the surge in grade inflation that would render the average grade at Harvard today an A-. Few could doubt Sowell’s brilliance because a Harvard degree with high honors really meant something. It may mean something today, but doubts abound—”Did he get it only because he’s black?”  

An eerie comparison of “then and now” was brought to mind during the installation of Drew Gilpin Faust as Harvard’s 28th president in 2007. Faust had in her possession a letter from James Bryant Conant that was written in 1951 and addressed to a future president of Harvard. 

The letter had been sealed, placed in the Harvard archives, with instructions that it not be opened before the beginning of the 21st century. Faust was the first to open and read Conant’s letter.   

“We all wonder,” it said, “how the free world is going to get through the next fifty years.” If the current “prophets of doom” prove wrong and Harvard is spared nuclear destruction, Conant predicted that it would surpass what it had been in his own time. And he added that he felt sure that Harvard in the 21st century “will maintain the traditions of academic freedom, of tolerance for heresy.”  

Has Harvard—and other leading academic institutions—maintained the traditions of academic freedom and tolerance for heresy of which Conant wrote? I am afraid the answer is “no.”    

Last year, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking at Harvard’s commencement ceremony, accurately summed up the current situation. “In the 1950s,” Bloomberg said, “the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.”   

He mentioned in this context how his former police commissioner Raymond Kelley had been shouted down at Brown and not permitted to give his prepared talk on big city policing.  

Were James Bryant Conant to come back to life and survey the scene today at Harvard and other  universities, he would be aghast at how merit has been compromised through race- and gender-based “affirmative action” and pessimistic about the declining tolerance for heresy and academic freedom.