I know this to be true because as a youngster in the 1970s, strong opposition to affirmative action was the primary issue that gradually drew me towards the Republican Party, until I finally cast my first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Yet although Republicans have held the White House and Congress during much of this period and placed numerous conservatives on the Supreme Court, the policies in question are vastly stronger today than they ever were in the past. Indeed, the racial positions publicly espoused by some wildly popular recent “right-wing” presidents as Donald Trump and George W. Bush surely would have utterly appalled such prominent liberals of the 1960s as Hubert Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy.
However, hope springs eternal, and although most of the Republican Party establishment has long since grown silent on the issue, a small band of determined conservative-activists has persevered, and earlier this year the Supreme Court agreed to take up a racial discrimination case brought by Asian plaintiffs against Harvard University, together with a similar case against the University of North Carolina.
I wish them well and I even have a proprietary interest in their success since the lawsuit was reportedly inspired by my 2012 Meritocracy article, whose findings of anti-Asian discrimination provoked a considerable flurry of attention both in the media and among Asian-American organizations. But after nearly fifty years of overwhelmingly negative progress, I’m quite skeptical that nine justices will suddenly provide a deus ex machina to remedy this unfortunate situation, especially since the Covid outbreak has provided many of our most elite colleges an excuse to sharply reduce their reliance upon standardized tests.
If admissions are increasingly based upon entirely subjective factors such as personal essays, admissions officers can produce whatever racial or demographic results that they and their academic masters desire. Indeed, despite its role in prompting the current lawsuit, relatively little of my analysis had focused upon traditional affirmative action, and my harsh conclusions were far more sweeping. As I wrote:
In recent decades, elite college admissions policy has frequently become an ideological battlefield between liberals and conservatives, but I would argue that both these warring camps have been missing the actual reality of the situation.
Conservatives have denounced “affirmative action” policies which emphasize race over academic merit, and thereby lead to the enrollment of lesser qualified blacks and Hispanics over their more qualified white and Asian competitors; they argue that our elite institutions should be color-blind and race-neutral. Meanwhile, liberals have countered that the student body of these institutions should “look like America,” at least approximately, and that ethnic and racial diversity intrinsically provide important educational benefits, at least if all admitted students are reasonably qualified and able to do the work.
My own position has always been strongly in the former camp, supporting meritocracy over diversity in elite admissions. But based on the detailed evidence I have discussed above, it appears that both these ideological values have gradually been overwhelmed and replaced by the influence of corruption and ethnic favoritism, thereby selecting future American elites which are not meritocratic nor diverse, neither being drawn from our most able students nor reasonably reflecting the general American population.
The overwhelming evidence is that the system currently employed by most of our leading universities admits applicants whose ability may be unremarkable but who are beneficiaries of underhanded manipulation and favoritism. Nations which put their future national leadership in the hands of such individuals are likely to encounter enormous economic and social problems, exactly the sort of problems which our own country seems to have increasingly experienced over the last couple of decades.
So I think the serious ills plaguing our elite universities are far broader and deeper than merely the question of racial discrimination under affirmative action, and even if the latter were rectified, I suspect that few would notice much improvement.
A perfect illustration of the dismal state of college admissions came a couple of weeks ago in a front-page Wall Street Journal story regarding a graduating Texas teenager who had been denied admission to all of the selective colleges to which she had applied. The first few paragraphs explained the details of her plight:
Kaitlyn Younger has been an academic standout since she started studying algebra in third grade.
She took her first advanced-placement course as a freshman, scored 1550 on her SATs as a junior at McKinney High School near Dallas and will graduate this spring with an unweighted 3.95 grade-point average and as the founder of the school’s accounting club. Along the way she performed in and directed about 30 plays, sang in the school choir, scored top marks on the tests she has so far taken for 11 advanced-placement classes, helped run a summer camp and held down a part-time job.
“She is extraordinary,” said Jeff Cranmore, her guidance counselor at McKinney High School.
Ms. Younger, 18 years old, was cautiously optimistic when she applied to top U.S. colleges last fall. Responses came this month: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, University of California, Berkeley, and Northwestern all rejected her.
“I expected a bunch wouldn’t accept me,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”
What made her situation so surprising was that her standardized SAT test scores of 1550 out of a possible 1600 placed her in the 99+ percentile, an especially impressive achievement since she had gotten those scores as a junior, being a year younger than nearly all of her competitors. Her ranking was substantially above the average for all of America’s most elite colleges, including those that rejected her, and far surpassed those of many of the other schools that had also returned thin envelopes. She had done very well in 11 AP classes and her application was overflowing with exactly the sort of impressive extra-curricular activities expected in the well-rounded applicant. And the result was still uniform rejection everywhere.
Based upon these apparent facts, the unfairness of her fate seems manifest, but it is much less clear to me that she was a victim of racial discrimination. I certainly don’t doubt that a large fraction of all the blacks or Hispanics admitted in her place had considerably lower test scores and less stellar academic transcripts. But given her extremely impressive record, the same was probably also true for most of the whites and Asians favored over her.
My suspicion is that she and her middle-class family lacked the special “hooks” that admissions consultants charge huge sums to arrange, and so she fell victim to the random whims of the bored or ignorant admissions officers who seem so typical of that profession. The obvious, almost inevitable consequence of the elimination of objective, meritocratic admissions criteria is that the process will increasingly be governed by corruption, connections, and favoritism, certainly very negative social ills but not necessarily violations of Civil Rights statutes.
So with the tenth anniversary of my Meritocracy monograph fast approaching and a Supreme Court ruling also on the horizon, I’ve decided to provide a lengthy summary of that analysis as well as a retrospective account of my own unsuccessful efforts to achieve reform via my Free Harvard/Fair Harvard campaign of 2016, starting with lengthy excerpts from my most recent 2018 discussion and the original 2012 article.
This last week trial began in Boston federal court for the current lawsuit in which a collection of Asian-American organizations are charging Harvard University with racial discrimination in its college admissions policies. The New York Times, our national newspaper of record, has been providing almost daily coverage to developments in the case, with the stories sometimes reaching the front page.
Last Sunday, just before the legal proceedings began, the Times ran a major article explaining the general background of the controversy, and I was very pleased to see that my own past research was cited as an important factor sparking the lawsuit, with the reporter even including a direct link to my 26,000 word 2012 cover-story “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” which had provided strong quantitative evidence of anti-Asian racial quotas. Economic historian Niall Ferguson, long one of Harvard’s most prominent professors but recently decamped to Stanford, similarly noted the role of my research in his column for the London Sunday Times.
Two decades ago, I had published a widely-discussed op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on somewhat similar issues of racial discrimination in elite admissions. But my more recent article was far longer and more comprehensive, and certainly drew more attention than anything else I have ever published, before or since. After it appeared in The American Conservative, its hundreds of thousands of pageviews broke all records for that publication and it attracted considerable notice in the media. Times columnist David Brooks soon ranked it as perhaps the best American magazine article of the year, a verdict seconded by a top editor at The Economist, and the Times itself quickly organized a symposium on the topic of Asian Quotas, in which I eagerly participated. Forbes, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, Business Insider, and other publications all discussed my striking results.
Conservative circles took considerable interest, with Charles Murray highlighting my findings, and National Review later published an article in which I explained the important implications of my findings for the legal validity of the 1978 Bakke decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There was also a considerable reaction from the academic community itself. I quickly received speaking invitations from the Yale Political Union, Yale Law, and the University of Chicago Law School, while Prof. Ferguson discussed my distressing analysis in a lengthy Newsweek/Daily Beast column entitled “The End of the American Dream.”
Moreover, I had also published an associated critique suggesting that over the years my beloved Harvard alma mater had transformed itself into one of the world’s largest hedge-funds with a vestigial school attached for tax-exempt purposes. This also generated enormous discussion in media circles, with liberal journalist Chris Hayes Tweeting it out and generously saying he was “very jealous” he hadn’t written the piece himself. Many of his colleagues promoted the piece with similarly favorable remarks, while the university quickly provided a weak public response to these serious financial charges.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to myself or other outside observers, Harvard itself launched an internal investigation of the anti-Asian bias that I had alleged. Apparently, the university’s own initial results generally confirmed my accusations, indicating that if students were admitted solely based upon objective academic merit, far more Asians would receive thick envelopes. But Harvard’s top administrators buried the study and did nothing, with these important facts only coming out years later during the discovery process of the current Asian Quotas lawsuit.
Only the first part of my very long article dealt with the question of anti-Asian racial discrimination in elite college admissions, but it attracted vastly more attention than any other element.
For many years, there had been a widespread belief within the Asian-American community that such discriminatory practices existed, a sentiment backed by considerable anecdotal evidence. But the university administrations had always flatly denied those claims, and the media had shown little interest in investigating them. However, my powerful new quantitative evidence proved very difficult to ignore.
Among other things, I focused upon the publicly available statewide lists of National Merit Semifinalists (NMS), a group that constituted the highest-performing one-half percent of American high school seniors. By a fortunate coincidence, this fraction of the American student body was reasonably close in size to the total enrollment of students at the Ivy League schools together with similarly elite schools such as Stanford, Caltech, and MIT. The NMS dataset had previously been almost entirely ignored by researchers, but I found it provided a treasure-trove of useful empirical information.
Since Asian last names are extremely distinctive, I was able to estimate that Asians nationally constituted roughly 25-30% of this top academic group, a figure considerably larger than their enrollment at Harvard and other elite schools. This conclusion was supported by the even greater Asian dominance in more highly selective academic competitions such as the Math Olympiad and the Intel Science Talent Search, though the far smaller numbers involved reduced the statistical validity of these analyses.
But my most dramatic finding relied upon an even simpler analysis of public data, which had previously remained unnoticed. As I wrote in my New York Times column:
Just as their predecessors of the 1920s always denied the existence of “Jewish quotas,” top officials at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the other Ivy League schools today strongly deny the existence of “Asian quotas.” But there exists powerful statistical evidence to the contrary.
Each year, American universities provide their racial enrollment data to the National Center for Education Statistics, which makes this information available online. After the Justice Department closed an investigation in the early 1990s into charges that Harvard University discriminated against Asian-American applicants, Harvard’s reported enrollment of Asian-Americans began gradually declining, falling from 20.6 percent in 1993 to about 16.5 percent over most of the last decade.
This decline might seem small. But these same years brought a huge increase in America’s college-age Asian population, which roughly doubled between 1992 and 2011, while non-Hispanic white numbers remained almost unchanged. Thus, according to official statistics, the percentage of Asian-Americans enrolled at Harvard fell by more than 50 percent over the last two decades, while the percentage of whites changed little. This decline in relative Asian-American enrollment was actually larger than the impact of Harvard’s 1925 Jewish quota, which reduced Jewish freshmen from 27.6 percent to 15 percent.
The percentages of college-age Asian-Americans enrolled at most of the other Ivy League schools also fell during this same period, and over the last few years Asian enrollments across these different universities have converged to a very similar level and remained static over time. This raises suspicions of a joint Ivy League policy to restrict Asian-American numbers to a particular percentage…
This statistical finding was illustrated in a simple graph, demonstrating that over the last two decades enrollment of Asian-Americans had gradually converged across the entire Ivy League, while sharply diverging from the rapidly increasing Asian-American population, with only strictly meritocratic Caltech continuing to track the latter.
It would be difficult to imagine more obvious visual evidence of an Asian Quota implemented across the Ivy League, and this chart was very widely circulated among Asian-American organizations and activists, who launched their lawsuit the following year. If they do succeed in winning their current case in federal court, the history books may eventually record that the wealthiest and most powerful university in the world was brought low by a single striking graph.
For decades affirmative action based upon race has been an extremely contentious topic in American politics, sharply divisive across ideological lines, and it was hardly surprising that my new analysis of that issue produced a wave of coverage. But buried deeper within that same lengthy article were even more explosive findings, apparently far too sensitive to even become a subject of significant media scrutiny.
Not without reason, most journalists regard matters touching upon Jewish sensitivities as the lethal “third rail” of their profession, and the bulk of my piece had presented some unexpected new insights in this area. These attracted the widespread private fascination of numerous prominent scholars and members of the media, but almost none of these individuals was willing to publicly disclose the results that had drawn their rapt attention.
As a consequence, these findings have remained largely unnoticed except among those who have actually taken the time to read far into my extremely long piece, while never penetrating into the awareness of the broader public. For example, Prof. Jordan Peterson, a leading celebrity-intellectual with a large YouTube following, recently demonstrated that he was totally ignorant of these important facts. Therefore, I am now taking this opportunity to summarize and excerpt those elements of my Meritocracy analysis that attracted the greatest private interest but received the least public attention.
A few years earlier, Jerome Karabel, an eminent Berkeley sociologist, had published The Chosen, his magisterial history of Jewish enrollment in the Ivy League, which won numerous scholarly accolades. His research conclusively demonstrated the existence of the once-denied Jewish Quotas of the past, employed by the reigning WASP elites to maintain control of those institutions against their upstart ethnic competitors. As I wrote:
Karabel’s massive documentation—over 700 pages and 3000 endnotes—establishes the remarkable fact that America’s uniquely complex and subjective system of academic admissions actually arose as a means of covert ethnic tribal warfare…
As Karabel repeatedly demonstrates, the major changes in admissions policy which later followed were usually determined by factors of raw political power and the balance of contending forces rather than any idealistic considerations. For example, in the aftermath of World War II, Jewish organizations and their allies mobilized their political and media resources to pressure the universities into increasing their ethnic enrollment by modifying the weight assigned to various academic and non-academic factors, raising the importance of the former over the latter. Then a decade or two later, this exact process was repeated in the opposite direction, as the early 1960s saw black activists and their liberal political allies pressure universities to bring their racial minority enrollments into closer alignment with America’s national population by partially shifting away from their recently enshrined focus on purely academic considerations. Indeed, Karabel notes that the most sudden and extreme increase in minority enrollment took place at Yale in the years 1968–69, and was largely due to fears of race riots in heavily black New Haven, which surrounded the campus.
Philosophical consistency appears notably absent in many of the prominent figures involved in these admissions battles, with both liberals and conservatives sometimes favoring academic merit and sometimes non-academic factors, whichever would produce the particular ethnic student mix they desired for personal or ideological reasons. Different political blocs waged long battles for control of particular universities, and sudden large shifts in admissions rates occurred as these groups gained or lost influence within the university apparatus: Yale replaced its admissions staff in 1965 and the following year Jewish numbers nearly doubled…
Branches of Hillel, the Jewish student organization, exist across most college campuses, and for decades they have provided estimates of the percentages of the local Jewish enrollment, with Karabel and other scholars relying upon these to chart the ebbs and flows of Jewish numbers. I discussed how Karabel used this data to celebrate the final meritocratic victory of Jewish college applicants over their former WASP oppressors…
Indeed, Karabel opens the final chapter of his book by…noting the extreme irony that the WASP demographic group which had once so completely dominated America’s elite universities and “virtually all the major institutions of American life” had by 2000 become “a small and beleaguered minority at Harvard,” being actually fewer in number than the Jews whose presence they had once sought to restrict. Very similar results seem to apply all across the Ivy League, with the disproportion often being even greater than the particular example emphasized by Karabel…
Karabel showed that the collapse of WASP resistance to the admission of high-performing Jewish students soon drastically reshaped the ethnic composition of these institutions, with his triumphalist narrative suggesting that this transformation raised academic standards and lifted the quality of the student body to new heights. And for decades, I had entirely accepted this simple morality tale, which was implicitly or explicitly presented in nearly all the accounts, liberal and conservative alike, that I had read regarding the history of our leading East Coast universities.
But as I began to quantitatively explore this issue, utilizing the same techniques and data sets I had applied to determining the existence of severe discrimination against Asian applicants, I uncovered evidence of an entirely contrary nature. I soon came to realize that many of my beliefs were merely ideological fairy tales, sometimes little more accurate than the Soviet claims of Russian peasants eagerly joining their collective farms.
Although Jewish names are not nearly as distinctive as Asian ones, they may usually be determined with reasonable accuracy, and applying Weyl analysis to a subset of the most absolutely characteristic ones—such as Goldstein, Silverberg, Cohen, and Kaplan—allows us to statistically validate the results so obtained.
As I thus analyzed the many dozens of statewide NMS lists, I soon discovered that Jews were far less heavily represented among America’s highest-performing students than I had expected, probably constituting no more than 6% of the national NMS total. The lists of the winners of the top scholastic competitions I had previously examined for Asians produced reasonably similar results.
Hispanic names are quite distinct and blacks are fewer in number and somewhat less successful academically, so the NMS totals for those two groups are also not difficult to determine. Once we subtract the totals of Asians, Jews, Hispanics, and blacks, what remains is the NMS total of non-Hispanic white Gentiles. And the results were absolutely eye-opening:
The evidence of the recent NMS semifinalist lists seems the most conclusive of all, given the huge statistical sample sizes involved. As discussed earlier, these students constitute roughly the highest 0.5 percent in academic ability, the top 16,000 high school seniors who should be enrolling at the Ivy League and America’s other most elite academic universities. In California, white Gentile names outnumber Jewish ones by over 8-to-1; in Texas, over 20-to-1; in Florida and Illinois, around 9-to-1. Even in New York, America’s most heavily Jewish state, there are more than two high-ability white Gentile students for every Jewish one. Based on the overall distribution of America’s population, it appears that approximately 65–70 percent of America’s highest ability students are non-Jewish whites, well over ten times the Jewish total of under 6 percent.
Needless to say, these proportions are considerably different from what we actually find among the admitted students at Harvard and its elite peers, which today serve as a direct funnel to the commanding heights of American academics, law, business, and finance. Based on reported statistics, Jews approximately match or even outnumber non-Jewish whites at Harvard and most of the other Ivy League schools, which seems wildly disproportionate. Indeed, the official statistics indicate that non-Jewish whites at Harvard are America’s most under-represented population group, enrolled at a much lower fraction of their national population than blacks or Hispanics, despite having far higher academic test scores.
When examining statistical evidence, the proper aggregation of data is critical. Consider the ratio of the recent 2007–2011 enrollment of Asian students at Harvard relative to their estimated share of America’s recent NMS semifinalists, a reasonable proxy for the high-ability college-age population, and compare this result to the corresponding figure for whites. The Asian ratio is 63 percent, slightly above the white ratio of 61 percent, with both these figures being considerably below parity due to the substantial presence of under-represented racial minorities such as blacks and Hispanics, foreign students, and students of unreported race. Thus, there appears to be no evidence for racial bias against Asians, even excluding the race-neutral impact of athletic recruitment, legacy admissions, and geographical diversity.
However, if we separate out the Jewish students, their ratio turns out to be 435 percent, while the residual ratio for non-Jewish whites drops to just 28 percent, less than half of even the Asian figure. As a consequence, Asians appear under-represented relative to Jews by a factor of seven, while non-Jewish whites are by far the most under-represented group of all, despite any benefits they might receive from athletic, legacy, or geographical distribution factors. The rest of the Ivy League tends to follow a similar pattern, with the overall Jewish ratio being 381 percent, the Asian figure at 62 percent, and the ratio for non-Jewish whites a low 35 percent, all relative to their number of high-ability college-age students.
Just as striking as these wildly disproportionate current numbers have been the longer enrollment trends. In the three decades since I graduated Harvard, the presence of white Gentiles has dropped by as much as 70 percent, despite no remotely comparable decline in the relative size or academic performance of that population; meanwhile, the percentage of Jewish students has actually increased. This period certainly saw a very rapid rise in the number of Asian, Hispanic, and foreign students, as well as some increase in blacks. But it seems rather odd that all of these other gains would have come at the expense of whites of Christian background, and none at the expense of Jews…
Several graphs from my article effectively illustrated these remarkable findings.
Based on these figures, Jewish students were roughly 1,000% more likely to be enrolled at Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League than white Gentiles of similar ability. This was an absolutely astonishing result given that under-representation in the range of 20% or 30% is often treated by courts as powerful prima facie evidence of racial discrimination.
Furthermore, I noted the possibility that this discrepancy might be related to the overwhelming Jewish dominance of the top administration of those institutions:
It would be unreasonable to ignore the salient fact that this massive apparent bias in favor of far less-qualified Jewish applicants coincides with an equally massive ethnic skew at the topmost administrative ranks of the universities in question, a situation which once again exactly parallels Karabel’s account from the 1920s. Indeed, Karabel points out that by 1993 Harvard, Yale, and Princeton all had presidents of Jewish ancestry, and the same is true for the current presidents of Yale, Penn, Cornell, and possibly Columbia, as well as Princeton’s president throughout during the 1990s and Yale’s new incoming president, while all three of Harvard’s most recent presidents have either had Jewish origins or a Jewish spouse.
At most universities, a provost is the second-ranking official, being responsible for day-to-day academic operations. Although Princeton’s current president is not Jewish, all seven of the most recent Princeton provosts stretching back to 1977 have had such ancestry, with several of the other Ivies not being far behind. A similar degree of massive overrepresentation is found throughout the other top administrative ranks of the rest of the Ivy League, and across American leading educational institutions in general, and these are the institutions which select our future national elites…
Since the publication of my 2012 article, Harvard and Princeton have both selected new presidents, each of them Jewish, while Yale’s Jewish president has remained in office.
The exact mechanism by which this seemingly enormous bias in favor of Jewish applicants to our most elite colleges manifests itself is not entirely clear, and I very much doubt that it takes the crude form of top administrators directing admissions officers to admit under-qualified Jewish applicants. Instead, I strongly suggested that a leading factor was the “negative pressure” of America’s overwhelmingly Jewish media and Jewish activist groups, which might respond harshly to any significant decline in Jewish numbers:
Meanwhile, any hint of “anti-Semitism” in admissions is regarded as an absolutely mortal sin, and any significant reduction in Jewish enrollment may often be denounced as such by the hair-trigger media. For example, in 1999 Princeton discovered that its Jewish enrollment had declined to just 500 percent of parity, down from more than 700 percent in the mid-1980s, and far below the comparable figures for Harvard or Yale. This quickly resulted in four front-page stories in the Daily Princetonian, a major article in the New York Observer, and extensive national coverage in both the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. These articles included denunciations of Princeton’s long historical legacy of anti-Semitism and quickly led to official apologies, followed by an immediate 30 percent rebound in Jewish numbers. During these same years, non-Jewish white enrollment across the entire Ivy League had dropped by roughly 50 percent, reducing those numbers to far below parity, but this was met with media silence or even occasional congratulations on the further “multicultural” progress of America’s elite education system.
I suspect that the combined effect of these separate pressures, rather than any planned or intentional bias, is the primary cause of the striking enrollment statistics that we have examined above. In effect, somewhat dim and over-worked admissions officers, generally possessing weak quantitative skills, have been tasked by their academic superiors and media monitors with the twin ideological goals of enrolling Jews and enrolling non-whites, with any major failures risking harsh charges of either “anti-Semitism” or “racism.” But by inescapable logic maximizing the number of Jews and non-whites implies minimizing the number of non-Jewish whites…
I further noted that this 1999 firestorm of media controversy attacking Princeton for its alleged “anti-Semitism” took place at a time when university’s president and provost were both Jewish, and the campus had recently opened a $4.5 million Center for Jewish Life.
In 2002, Jacques Steinberg, a longtime National Educational Correspondent for the New York Times, published The Gatekeepers, a widely praised best-seller that provided an “inside look” at the college admissions process based on the year he had spent embedded with those officials at Wesleyan, and the 2012 edition of his book stated that few aspects of the process had changed during the previous decade. I was deeply distressed by his description of the background of the admissions officers:
In fact, it seems likely that some of these obvious admissions biases we have noticed may be related to the poor human quality and weak academic credentials of many of the university employees making these momentous decisions. As mentioned above, the job of admissions officer is poorly paid, requires no professional training, and offers few opportunities for career advancement; thus, it is often filled by individuals with haphazard employment records. As one of the “Little Ivies,” Wesleyan is among America’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges, and Steinberg’s description of the career paths of its handful of admissions officers is eye-opening: the interim Director of Admissions had most recently screened food-stamp recipients and run a psychiatric half-way house; another had worked as an animal control officer and managed a camera store; a third unsuccessfully sought a job as a United Airlines flight attendant; others were recent college graduates, whose main college interests had been sports or ethnic studies. The vast majority seem to possess minimal academic expertise and few intellectual interests, raising serious questions about their ability to reasonably evaluate their higher-quality applicants…
Books by former members of the Harvard and Dartmouth admissions strongly supported the same conclusions…
As additional evidence, we can consider What It Really Takes to Get into the Ivy League, a 2003 advice book written by Chuck Hughes, who spent five years as a Senior Admissions Officer at Harvard, after having himself graduated from that university. Although he strongly emphasizes his own college participation in varsity sports, he never says a word about any personal academic interests, and near the end of his book on elite college admissions, he appears to describe Duke, Northwestern, and Rice as being members of the Ivy League.
A more explicit statement of this exact problem is found in A for Admission, a very candid 1997 description of the admissions process at elite private universities written by Michele A. Hernandez, who had spent four years as Dartmouth’s Assistant Director of Admissions. Near the beginning of her book, Hernandez explains that over half of Ivy League admissions officers are individuals who had not attended such academically challenging universities, nor probably had the intellectual capability to do so, and were sometimes confused about the relative ranking of SAT scores and other basic academic credentials. She also cautions students to avoid any subtlety in their essays, lest their words be misunderstood by their readers in the admissions office, whose degrees are more likely to have been in education than in any serious academic discipline…
Given this unfortunate situation, we should not be overly surprised by the egregious aspects of the particular admissions stories that Steinberg recounts…
Consider the case of Tiffany Wang, a Chinese immigrant student raised in the Silicon Valley area, where her father worked as an engineer. Although English was not her first language, her SAT scores were over 100 points above the Wesleyan average, and she ranked as a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, putting her in the top 0.5 percent of high school students (not the top 2 percent as Steinberg mistakenly claims). Nevertheless, the admissions officer rated her just so-so in academics, and seemed far more positively impressed by her ethnic activism in the local school’s Asian-American club. Ultimately, he stamped her with a “Reject,” but later admitted to Steinberg that she might have been admitted if he had been aware of the enormous time and effort she had spent campaigning against the death penalty, a political cause near and dear to his own heart. Somehow I suspect that a student who boasted of leadership in pro-death penalty activism among his extracurriculars might have fared rather worse in this process. And presumably for similar reasons, Tiffany was also rejected by all her other prestigious college choices, including Yale, Penn, Duke, and Wellesley, an outcome which greatly surprised and disappointed her immigrant father.
There was also the case of half-Brazilian Julianna Bentes, with slight black ancestry, who came from a middle-class family and attended on a partial scholarship one of America’s most elite prep schools, whose annual tuition now tops $30,000; her SAT scores were somewhat higher than Tiffany’s, and she was an excellent dancer. The combination of her academic ability, dancing talent, and “multiracial” background ranked her as one of America’s top college recruitment prospects, gaining her admission and generous financial packages from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and every other elite university to which she applied, including the University of Chicago’s most prestigious academic scholarship award and a personal opportunity to meet Chelsea Clinton while visiting Stanford, which she did, before ultimately selecting Yale.
Finally, there was the case of Becca Jannol, a girl from a very affluent Jewish family near Beverly Hills, who attended the same elite prep school as Julianna, but with her parents paying the full annual tuition. Despite her every possible advantage, including test-prep courses and retaking the exam, her SAT scores were some 240 points lower on the 1600 point scale, placing her toward the bottom of the Wesleyan range, while her application essay focused on the philosophical challenges she encountered when she was suspended for illegal drug use. But she was a great favorite of her prep school counselor, who was an old college friend of the Wesleyan admissions officer, and using his discretion, he stamped her “Admit.” Her dismal academic record then caused this initial decision to be overturned by a unanimous vote of the other members of the full admissions committee, but he refused to give up, and moved heaven and earth to gain her a spot, even offering to rescind the admissions of one or more already selected applicants to create a place for her. Eventually he got her shifted from the Reject category to wait-list status, after which he secretly moved her folder to the very top of the large waiting list pile.
In the end “connections” triumphed, and she received admission to Wesleyan, although she turned it down in favor of an offer from more prestigious Cornell, which she had obtained through similar means. But at Cornell, she found herself “miserable,” hating the classes and saying she “didn’t see the usefulness of [her] being there.” However, her poor academic ability proved no hindrance, since the same administrator who had arranged her admission also wrangled her a quick entrance into a special “honors program” he personally ran, containing just 40 of the 3500 students in her year. This exempted her from all academic graduation requirements, apparently including classes or tests, thereby allowing her to spend her four college years mostly traveling around the world while working on a so-called “special project.” After graduation, she eventually took a job at her father’s successful law firm, thereby realizing her obvious potential as a member of America’s ruling Ivy League elite, or in her own words, as being one of “the best of the best”…
Jannol’s account also contains a particularly intriguing element. Personal essays have become a crucial component of application packages to elite colleges, and these are considered especially effective if they provide strong evidence of hardships and victimhood. Given her extremely wealthy and privileged background, Jannol had originally considered focusing on her status as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, but ultimately decided against it because so many of her peers would be following exactly that same stratagem, explaining to Steinberg that “Everyone’s going to write about their Holocaust grandma.”
Over the last few decades, our news and entertainment industries have elevated Jewish suffering during World War II into the most horrific and monumental tragedy of the modern era, and it not impossible that a substantial fraction of the unfair Jewish advantage in elite admissions may derive from something as simple as the ability of the children of elite Jewish families to wrap themselves in the ultimate victimhood of Holocaust survivor status…
I had been stunned by my evidence of the unreasonable over-representation of Jewish students at our most elite academic institutions, and most of the prominent scholars and journalists who read my analysis seemed to have a similar reaction. Further analysis suggested some of the crucial reasons for this widespread myopia, which I explicated in a section entitled “The Strange Collapse of Jewish Academic Achievement”…
From my own perspective, I found these statistical results surprising, even shocking.
I had always been well aware of the very heavy Jewish presence at elite academic institutions. But the underwhelming percentage of Jewish students who today achieve high scores on academic aptitude tests was totally unexpected, and very different from the impressions I had formed during my own high school and college years a generation or so ago. An examination of other available statistics seems to support my recollections and provides evidence for a dramatic recent decline in the academic performance of American Jews.
The U.S. Math Olympiad began in 1974, and all the names of the top scoring students are easily available on the Internet. During the 1970s, well over 40 percent of the total were Jewish, and during the 1980s and 1990s, the fraction averaged about one-third. However, during the thirteen years since 2000, just two names out of 78 or 2.5 percent appear to be Jewish. The Putnam Exam is the most difficult and prestigious mathematics competition for American college students, with five or six Putnam winners having been selected each year since 1938. Over 40 percent of the Putnam winners prior to 1950 were Jewish, and during every decade from the 1950s through the 1990s, between 22 percent and 31 percent of the winners seem to have come from that same ethnic background. But since 2000, the percentage has dropped to under 10 percent, without a single likely Jewish name in the last seven years.
This consistent picture of stark ethnic decline recurs when we examine the statistics for the Science Talent Search, which has been selecting 40 students as national finalists for America’s most prestigious high school science award since 1942, thus providing a huge statistical dataset of over 2800 top science students. During every decade from the 1950s through the 1980s, Jewish students were consistently 22–23 percent of the recipients, with the percentage then declining to 17 percent in the 1990s, 15 percent in the 2000s, and just 7 percent since 2010. Indeed, of the thirty top ranked students over the last three years, only a single one seems likely to have been Jewish. Similarly, Jews were over one-quarter of the top students in the Physics Olympiad from 1986 to 1997, but have fallen to just 5 percent over the last decade, a result which must surely send Richard Feynman spinning in his grave.
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Taken in combination, these trends all provide powerful evidence that over the last decade or more there has been a dramatic collapse in Jewish academic achievement, at least at the high end.
Several possible explanations for this empirical result seem reasonably plausible. Although the innate potential of a group is unlikely to drop so suddenly, achievement is a function of both ability and effort, and today’s overwhelmingly affluent Jewish students may be far less diligent in their work habits or driven in their studies than were their parents or grandparents, who lived much closer to the bracing challenges of the immigrant experience. In support of this hypothesis, roughly half of the Jewish Math Olympiad winners from the last two decades have had the sort of highly distinctive names which would tend to mark them as recent immigrants from the Soviet Union or elsewhere, and such names were also very common among the top Jewish science students of the same period, even though this group represents only about 10 percent of current American Jews. Indeed, it seems quite possible that this large sudden influx of very high performing immigrant Jews from the late 1980s onward served to partially mask the rapid concurrent decline of high academic achievement among native American Jews, which otherwise would have become much more clearly evident a decade or so earlier.
This pattern of third or fourth generation American students lacking the academic drive or intensity of their forefathers is hardly surprising, nor unique to Jews. Consider the case of Japanese-Americans, who mostly arrived in America during roughly the same era. America’s Japanese have always been a high-performing group, with a strong academic tradition, and Japan’s international PISA academic scores are today among the highest in the world. But when we examine the list of California’s NMS semifinalists, less than 1 percent of the names are Japanese, roughly in line with their share of the California population. Meanwhile, Chinese, Koreans, and South Asians are 6 percent of California but contribute 50 percent of the top scoring students, an eight-fold better result, with a major likely difference being that they are overwhelmingly of recent immigrant origin. In fact, although ongoing Japanese immigration has been trivial in size, a significant fraction of the top Japanese students have the unassimilated Japanese first names that would tend to indicate they are probably drawn from that tiny group.
In his 1966 book The Creative Elite in America, Weyl used last name analysis to document a similarly remarkable collapse in achievement among America’s Puritan-descended population, which had once provided a hugely disproportionate fraction of our intellectual leadership, but for various reasons went into rapid decline from about 1900 onward. He also mentions the disappearance of the remarkable Scottish intellectual contribution to British life after about 1800. Although the evidence for both these historical parallels seems very strong, the causal factors are not entirely clear, though Weyl does provide some possible explanations.
In some respects, perhaps it was the enormously outsize Jewish academic performance of the past which was highly anomalous, and the more recent partial convergence toward white European norms which is somewhat less surprising. Over the years, claims have been widely circulated that the mean Jewish IQ is a full standard deviation—15 points—above the white average of 100, but this seems to have little basis in reality. Richard Lynn, one of the world’s foremost IQ experts, has performed an exhaustive literature review and located some 32 IQ samples of American Jews, taken from 1920 to 2008. For the first 14 studies conducted during the years 1920–1937, the Jewish IQ came out very close to the white American mean, and it was only in later decades that the average figure rose to the approximate range of 107–111.
In a previous article “Race, IQ & Wealth,” I had suggested that the IQs of ethnic groups appear to be far more malleable than many people would acknowledge, and may be particularly influenced by factors of urbanization, education, and affluence. Given that Jews have always been America’s most heavily urbanized population and became the most affluent during the decades in question, these factors may account for a substantial portion of their huge IQ rise during most of the twentieth century. But with modern electronic technology recently narrowing the gaps in social environment and educational opportunities between America’s rural and urban worlds, we might expect a portion of this difference to gradually dissipate. American Jews are certainly a high-ability population, but the innate advantage they have over other high-ability white populations is probably far smaller than is widely believed.
This conclusion is supported by the General Social Survey (GSS), an online dataset of tens of thousands of American survey responses from the last forty years which includes the Wordsum vocabulary test, a very useful IQ proxy correlating at 0.71. Converted into the corresponding IQ scores, the Wordsum-IQ of Jews is indeed quite high at 109. But Americans of English, Welsh, Scottish, Swedish, and Catholic Irish ancestry also have fairly high mean IQs of 104 or above, and their combined populations outnumber Jews by almost 15-to-1, implying that they would totally dominate the upper reaches of the white American ability distribution, even if we excluded the remaining two-thirds of all American whites, many of whose IQs are also fairly high. Furthermore, all these groups are far less highly urbanized or affluent than Jews, probably indicating that their scores are still artificially depressed to some extent. We should also remember that Jewish intellectual performance tends to be quite skewed, being exceptionally strong in the verbal subcomponent, much lower in math, and completely mediocre in visuospatial ability; thus, a completely verbal-oriented test such as Wordsum would actually tend to exaggerate Jewish IQ.
Stratifying the white American population along religious lines produces similar conclusions. An analysis of the data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that Americans raised in the Episcopal Church actually exceeded Jews in mean IQ, while several other religious categories came quite close, leading to the result that the overwhelming majority of America’s high-ability white population had a non-Jewish background.
Finally, in the case of Jews, these assimilation- or environment-related declines in relative academic performance may have been reinforced by powerful demographic trends. For the last generation or two, typical Jewish women from successful or even ordinary families have married very late and averaged little more than a single child, while the small fraction of Jewish women who are ultra-Orthodox often marry in their teens and then produce seven or eight children. As a consequence, this extremely religious subpopulation has been doubling in size every twenty years, and now easily exceeds 10 percent of the total, including a far higher percentage of younger Jews. But ultra-Orthodox Jews have generally been academically mediocre, often with enormously high rates of poverty and government dependency. Therefore, the combination of these two radically different trends of Jewish reproduction has acted to stabilize the total number of Jewish youngsters, while probably producing a sharp drop in their average academic achievement.
Although the relative importance of these individual factors behind Jewish academic decline is unclear, the decline itself seems an unmistakable empirical fact, and the widespread unawareness of this fact has had important social consequences.
My casual mental image of today’s top American students is based upon my memories of a generation or so ago, when Jewish students, sometimes including myself, regularly took home a quarter or more of the highest national honors on standardized tests or in prestigious academic competitions; thus, it seemed perfectly reasonable that Harvard and most of the other Ivy League schools might be 25 percent Jewish, based on meritocracy. But the objective evidence indicates that in present day America, only about 6 percent of our top students are Jewish, which now renders such very high Jewish enrollments at elite universities totally absurd and ridiculous. I strongly suspect that a similar time lag effect is responsible for the apparent confusion in many others who have considered the topic.
For example, throughout his very detailed book, Karabel always seems to automatically identify increasing Jewish enrollments with academic meritocracy, and Jewish declines with bias or discrimination, retaining this assumption even when his discussion moves into the 1990s and 2000s. He was born in 1950, graduated Harvard in 1972, and returned there to earn his Ph.D. in 1977, so this may indeed have been the reality during his formative years. But he seems strikingly unaware that the world has changed since then, and that over the last decade or two, meritocracy and Jewish numbers have become opposing forces: the stricter the meritocratic standard, the fewer the Jews admitted…
Evidence of the remarkable collapse of Jewish academic achievement is easily seen in a series of charts:
Important results with major policy implications will only have significant impact if they are widely distributed, and in this regard I faced formidable obstacles.
My article was running in The American Conservative, a small circulation political opinion magazine of which I was the publisher, and so my findings needed to break through into far larger and more mainstream outlets in order to reach a sizable audience. But in the past TAC had often been fiercely denounced by Jewish activists and organizations, mostly on foreign policy issues, and elements of my piece were far more inflammatory than any of that previous material. While harsh attacks might help promote my information within particular ideological circles, they would surely dissuade mainstream publications from taking notice, and would also sufficiently stigmatize my research that no respectable individual would be willing to cite it in the future.
My first decision was to place my Asian Quota section near the front of my very long text. Aside from the intrinsic importance, this would also provide interested readers with a relatively safe “hook” that they could use to describe and promote my analysis, while allowing them to avoid mentioning any of the “third rail” material that constituted the bulk of my text; and this was exactly what eventually occurred. But such a strategy would obviously fail unless I could also somehow induce hair-trigger activist groups to maintain silence about my article rather than begin crudely demonizing it. Therefore, I decided to launch what I considered a decapitating first strike against those central organs of Jewish activism but to do so in a rather oblique manner.
Jerome Karabel certainly ranked as the world’s foremost authority on Jewish admissions to the Ivy League, and his celebrated opus had been the central text I had used, although my ultimate conclusions were radically different than his own. It seemed likely to me that once Jewish organizations became aware of the controversial elements of my article, he would be among the first individuals they contacted, both to seek his assessment of my analysis and perhaps also receive suggestions for an effective rebuttal.
Therefore, I obtained Karabel’s contact information and sent him an advance copy of my completed article weeks before it was generally released, explaining that I thought he would find it rather interesting although some of my conclusions were quite different than his own. My expectation was that once he carefully read my detailed analysis, he would conclude that the case I made was far too strong to be effectively refuted, and he would pass along that verdict to the activist organizations when they eventually contacted him, thus leading them adopt a policy of “strategic silence” in order to avoid drawing attention to my claims. For whatever reason, that was exactly how they reacted, and no prominent Jewish activist or group ever issued a public response to my extremely controversial findings despite the considerable attention these ultimately attracted.
Not only did this complete absence of organized attacks provide a green light for the very favorable mainstream coverage I soon began receiving, but it even opened the door to quite friendly treatment from numerous members of the organized Jewish community itself, as they discovered and read my article without any prior negative preconceptions. Most of these discussions focused directly upon the evidence of the sharp recent decline in Jewish academic ability and the resulting Jewish over-representation at elite universities, with a professor of Talmud Studies at Yeshiva University publishing a thousand-word column entitled “Endangered Jewish Genius” and NYU’s Berman Jewish Policy Center featuring my article on its website. Even the Israeli press took notice, with a columnist for Israel Hayom, Sheldon Adelson’s top-circulation newpaper, devoting a 1500 word column to my analysis, focusing especially upon my claims of Jewish over-representation.
But although prominent Jewish activists maintained their strict blockade against any discussion of my findings, the Jewish community has never lacked for extreme zealots, and some of these did eventually launch ferocious attacks on my work. However, these were fringe figures, so they were very slow off the mark in their responses and lacked significant credibility or media support. Therefore, their complaints had little impact, especially because they were largely self-refuting.
My fiercest academic critic was a certain cancer researcher named Janet Mertz, a fanatic feminist whose previous public efforts had been focused on vilifying and refuting former Harvard president Larry Summers for his mild but impolitic suggestion that perhaps men might be a bit better at math than women, a position she regarded as utter anathema. To that end, she had published a 10,000 word peer-reviewed analysis of decades worth of International Math Olympiad participants, which convincingly demonstrated that across almost every time period and country, roughly 95% of the best mathematicians had been male and only 5% female. But she rather bizarrely claimed that this conclusively proved that males and females had exactly equal mathematical aptitude, and then persuaded Science Daily and other gullible media outlets to publish headlined news stories touting her powerful debunking of male chauvinist mythology.
Mertz was equally zealous in her Jewish identitarianism, and she had invested enormous effort in exhaustively determining the exact fractional Jewish ancestry of all of America’s recent Math Olympians. As a consequence, she fiercely denounced as mere “guesswork” my own estimates of Jewish numbers, based as they were upon a much more casual inspection of surnames, supplemented by Weyl analysis. I think my response was quite effective…
As it happens, she and her co-authors had exhaustively researched the ethnicity of the 1988-2007 American Math Olympians in their aforementioned 2008 article, and through a combination of extensive biographical research and confidential personal interviews had determined the exact number of full-Jews and part-Jews among those 120 individuals, publishing the results in their Table 7 mentioned above, together with the broader racial categories.
Given that I had produced my own ethnic estimates for those same students based on perhaps five minutes of cursory surname analysis, while Mertz and her associates seemingly devoted five weeks of research to the same task, I readily acknowledge that her results are certain to be vastly more accurate than my own. Indeed, if we regard the Mertz figures as the “gold standard,” then comparing them with my own numbers provides a useful means of assessing the overall quality of my direct inspection technique, a technique that constituted a central pillar of my entire study. This allows us to decide whether my approach was indeed just the worthless “guesswork” that she alleges.
Her peer-reviewed journal article determined that the 120 American Math Olympians from 1988-2007 consisted of exactly 42 Asians, 26 Jews, and 52 non-Jewish whites. My crude surname estimate had been 44 Asians, 23 Jews, and 53 non-Jewish whites. Individual readers must decide for themselves whether these estimation errors seem so enormous as to totally invalidate my overall conclusions, but personally I would be quite satisfied if they remained in this range across the tens of thousands of surnames I had inspected throughout the rest of my paper.
Obviously, such estimation techniques may be completely incorrect for tiny handfuls of names, and should only be relied upon across substantial lists. For example, in one sentence of my 30,000 word article I stated that just 2 of the 78 names of Olympiad winners since 2000 seemed likely to be Jewish, and Mertz has repeatedly attacked me for this claim, now pointing out that I had missed the Hebrew name of winner “Oaz Nir.” She is correct, and since Nir was a double winner in 2000 and 2001, this single surname error on my part accounts for virtually the entire discrepancy between my own 1988-2007 Olympiad results and those produced by the exhaustive research undertaken by Mertz and her three academic co-authors…
The only reason that I or anyone else even became aware of Mertz’s harsh critique of my analysis was the heavy promotion she received by Andrew Gelman, a professor of Statistics at Columbia University and a prominent blogger, who thereby apparently hoped to undercut my findings without directly involving himself and thereby risking his own reputation. But once I informed him of some of her previous scholarly claims regarding gender issues, he seemed to abandon the project.
A close Mertz ally was a much younger woman named Nurit Baytch, whom I actually encountered in person. As I was giving my lecture at the University of Chicago Law School, I couldn’t help but notice a rather short young woman sitting in the front row, glaring at me with a glassy-eyed stare. I am hardly a clothes-horse, but she was dressed very strangely, and when she afterward came up to “confront me,” her mannerisms and style of speaking were quite odd as well. All in all, her appearance much reminded me of the photos of female Weather Underground terrorists of the late 1960s, most of whom had also come from a Jewish background.
Eventually, Ms. Baytch wrote a massive document purportedly refuting my Meritocracy analysis, and since it was never published anywhere, she posted it on the Internet as a GoogleDocs file, which countless Jewish activists have subsequently cited as a conclusive debunking of my claims. But all her tens of thousands of words of complex verbiage cannot get around the simple fact that only about 6% of America’s high-performing NMS students are Jewish and the remaining 94% are Gentile.
Her other line of criticism was to denounce my use of the Hillel numbers for Jewish enrollment, which she claimed were completely fraudulent, though without any evidence buttressing her claim. For decades, these Hillel figures had been accepted without reservation by all our leading media outlets and academic researchers, while I had actually treated them with some caution, perhaps being the first analyst to do so…
Similarly, nearly all our figures on Jewish enrollment were ultimately drawn from the estimates of Hillel, the national Jewish campus organization, and these are obviously approximate. However, the Hillel data is the best we possess for recent decades, and is regularly used by the New York Times and other prominent media outlets, while also serving as the basis for much of Karabel’s award-winning scholarship. Furthermore, so long as any latent bias in the data remained relatively constant, we could still correctly analyze changes over time…
Completely discarding as unreliable the tens of thousands of annual Jewish enrollment estimates compiled by Hillel over the last half-century would completely eliminate almost everything we know about the historical size and trajectory of the Jewish presence at thousands of American colleges, destroying the sociological studies of many scholars. But fortunately, it seems quite unlikely that the figures are as completely nonsensical as Baytch casually claimed.
These Hillel estimates have been very widely circulated within the Jewish community for decades and republished in Jewish magazines, being primarily intended to help guide strongly-identified Jewish families in selecting a college campus with a Jewish enrollment in the range they considered necessary. For most families, the cost of a college education is one of the largest investments they will ever make, and if for decades, tens or hundreds of thousands of committed Jewish families had picked their colleges based on the Hillel numbers only to discover that those figures had no connection to reality, surely there would have been a huge and angry backlash. But there is no record of any such complaints.
For many years, Harvard Hillel had regularly claimed that half or more of all the white undergraduates on the campus came from a Jewish background, and if this figure were wildly inaccurate, surely someone at Harvard Hillel would have eventually noticed that error and corrected it, with the same being true for Yale, Columbia, Penn, and numerous other colleges. Obviously, the criteria used to classify a student as Jewish are somewhat elastic, and we can easily suppose that the estimate generally includes part-Jews who in any way identified with that community, and may have been been somewhat exaggerated due to ethnic boosterism. But it seems highly unlikely that the figures would be utterly and demonstrably false.
These arguments based on general plausibility are strongly supported by quantitative evidence, and ironically enough, it is Baytch herself who provided it. Around the time she produced her lengthy and unpublished document, Harvard Hillel was claiming a Jewish undergraduate enrollment of 25%, and near the beginning of her text, she claimed that figure was obviously false by citing a Harvard Crimson survey indicating that only 9.5% of the Class of 2017 were Jewish. However, she failed to notice that the survey referred to being religiously Jewish, which is entirely different than being Jewish in the broader ethnic or ancestral sense, especially since Jews are among the most secular populations in American society and a full 42% of the Harvard students described their religious beliefs as atheist, agnostic, or “other.” Indeed, a worldwide survey finds that only 38% of (ethnic) Jews follow the Jewish religion. So if the Crimson survey were correct and Harvard Jews were typical in their religiosity, this would imply that 9.5% / 0.38 = 25%(!!!) of Harvard freshman were ethnically Jewish, exactly the figure claimed by Harvard Hillel. Fanatic ideologues such as Baytch sometimes have a tendency to score game-ending own-goals without even realizing what they have done.
In general, Jewish classification has a rather protean nature, with somewhat overlapping definitions based on religion, ethnicity, and full or partial ancestry, allowing it to be drastically expanded or contracted for various reasons. I suspect that Baytch’s confusion on this matter was entirely sincere, related to the obsessive tendencies she exhibited in real life. But others may employ these shifting definitions based upon more pragmatic considerations.
It is well known that for many decades the American Communist Party and especially its top leadership were overwhelmingly Jewish, even at a time when Jews were just 3% of the national population. But Jewish community leaders were not pleased with this situation, and they sometimes flatly denied the reality, insisting that there were actually no Jewish Communists whatsoever—how could there be, when Communists were hostile to all religious belief?
Similarly, my findings that Jews were apparently enrolled at Harvard and other elite colleges at a rate some 1,000% greater than white Gentiles of similar academic performance must surely have set off alarm bells within the leadership of Jewish activist organizations, who wondered how best to manage or conceal this potentially dangerous information. With a high-profile Asian discrimination lawsuit wending its way through the courts and my own unsuccessful 2016 attempt to run a slate of candidates for the Board of Harvard Overseers, the likelihood of growing public scrutiny surely loomed very large.
Baytch’s apparent confusion between having Jewish ancestry and practicing the Jewish religion would have been well-known in these circles, and offered an obvious solution. If Jewish numbers were suddenly narrowed to only include those students who claimed to follow Jewish religious practices, the flagrant over-representation of Jews on elite campuses would be greatly reduced. Meanwhile, large numbers of lesser-qualified applicants of Jewish ancestry but no religious belief could continue to gain unfair admission by writing essays about their “Holocaust grandmas” with America’s 98% Gentile population being none the wiser.
For whatever reason, Hillel seems to have recently adopted this practice, drastically reducing its published estimates of the Jewish enrollment at Harvard and other elite colleges, thus eliminating a glaring example of ethnic bias by a simple act of redefinition. For example, the Hillel website now claims that merely 11% of Harvard undergraduates are Jewish, a huge reduction from the previous 25% figure, and a total suspiciously close to the Crimson survey of a few years ago which counted Jews only based upon their religious beliefs. The Hillel figures for Yale, Princeton, and most other elite colleges have experienced equally sudden and huge declines.
One very strong clue regarding this new definition of Jewish enrollment comes from Caltech, an elite science and engineering school which is quite unlikely to attract Jews professing religious faith. According to the Hillel website, the Jewish enrollment is 0%, claiming that there absolutely no Jews on campus. Despite this, the website also describes the vibrant Jewish life at Caltech, with Caltech Jews involved in all sorts of local activities and projects. This absurd paradox is obviously due to the distinction between individuals who are Jewish by religion and those who are Jewish by ancestry.
As the 1999 media firestorm engulfing Princeton demonstrated, in the past even slight and gentle declines of Jewish enrollment over a fifteen year period would provoke massive controversy and angry denunciations from Jewish organizations. The absolute lack of any organized response to the recent sudden disappearance of nearly 60% of Harvard’s Jews certainly suggests that little more than a mere change in definition had occurred.
Many years ago as a young and naive undergraduate, I would usually spend my dinners discussing all sorts of political and policy issues with my fellow classmates in our Harvard dining hall.
Affirmative action was a regular topic of our conversations, and I would occasionally note how odd America was in that regard. No other example came to mind in which an ethnic group had established a legalized system of racial discrimination against its own members, while similar sorts of systems aimed at excluding or disadvantaging rival ethnic groups were all too common in world history.
As the decades went by, I gradually noticed that the huge and continuing increase in the enrollment of non-white and foreign students at our most elite universities had caused a complete collapse in the enrollment of white American Gentiles, but oddly enough, no similar reduction in Jewish numbers. It was well-known that Jewish activists had been the primary force behind the establishment of affirmative action and related policies in college admissions, and I began to wonder about their true motivation, whether conscious or unconscious.
Had the goal been the stated one, of providing educational opportunities to previously excluded groups? Or had that merely been the excuse used to advance a policy that eliminated the majority of white Gentiles, their primary ethnic competitors? With the Jewish population numbering merely 2%, there was an obvious limit as to how many elite college slots they themselves could possibly fill, but if enough other groups were also brought in, then Gentile numbers could easily be reduced to low levels, despite the fact that they constituted the bulk of the national population.
Asians represented an interesting test-case. As their numbers rapidly grew, white Gentiles were consequently pushed out, and this process was celebrated across the academic community. But by the late 1980s, Asian numbers had increased to such an extent that they inevitably began to impinge upon elite Jewish enrollment as well and future increases would surely worsen the situation. And at that point, the process suddenly halted, with Asian numbers being sharply reduced and thereafter permanently capped. The implications of this situation were already in the back of my mind when I published my 1998 Wall Street Journal column describing some of these striking racial facts.
The current high-profile trial in Boston is widely portrayed by the media as a conflict between Asian-American groups, whose educational interests suffer under the current subjective and opaque admissions system, and black and Hispanic groups, whose numbers might be sharply reduced under some proposed changes. Whites are largely portrayed as bystanders, with Harvard indicating that their numbers would scarcely shift even under drastic changes in admissions policy. But the term “white” encompasses both Jews and Gentiles, and thus may conceal more than it reveals.
The implications of my 2012 Meritocracy analysis are certainly well-known to all of the prominent participants and observers in the ongoing legal battle, but the fearsome power of the ADL and its media allies ensures that certain important aspects of the current situation are never subjected to widespread public discussion. Asian advocates rightly denounce the unfairness of the current elite academic admissions system, but remain absolutely mute about which American group actually controls the institutions involved.
Throughout the enormous media controversy surrounding the Harvard trial in Boston, all sides are doing their utmost to avoid noticing the 2% elephant in the room. And that fact provides the best proof of the tremendous size and power of that elephant in today’s American society.
By early 2015 a couple of years had passed since the publication of my Meritocracy article. The last echoes had long since faded away, and I saw no likelihood for anything to happen in the real world during the immediate future.
In the wake of the considerable media coverage of my analysis, many dozens of Asian organizations had publicly denounced Harvard’s policies and a federal lawsuit had been filed challenging Harvard’s apparent racial discrimination against Asian-American applicants; but lawsuits moved slowly, so I assumed it would take many years until anything significant resulted. Meanwhile, I’d launched my new webzine, The Unz Review, but had been too preoccupied with software work to do any writing over the previous year.
Then in March 2015 I decided to finally publish my expose describing the true military career of Sen. John McCain, which I had discovered was so extremely divergent from the sugar-coated narrative promoted by his worshipful mainstream media scribes. Drawing upon the seminal research of Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg, I emphasized that the closest analogy to the man widely regarded as our greatest national war hero was probably the notorious “Tokyo Rose,” who had been convicted of treason after World War II.
- John McCain: When “Tokyo Rose” Ran for President
The Unz Review • March 9, 2015 • 4,200 Words
My piece did very well, receiving a great deal of readership and many favorable comments, including from the numerous individuals on my distribution list, and a week or two later, the New York Times invited me to contribute to a symposium they were organizing on how to improve American higher education, a natural topic for me given my previous Meritocracy analysis. My first thought was to submit a piece arguing that an element of randomness should be added to the admissions process, a suggestion that I had advanced in my Meritocracy article. But another contributor had already proposed that idea, so I switched to arguing that Harvard and the other elite, wealthy schools should abolish undergraduate tuition, another proposal I had previously made, even as I ridiculed them as tax-exempt hedge-funds.
- Our Elite Colleges Should Abolish Tuition
The New York Times • March 30, 2015 • 500 Words
Although Harvard is widely known as one of America’s oldest and most prestigious colleges, that public image is outdated. Over the last couple of decades, the university has transformed itself into one of the world’s largest hedge-funds, with the huge profits of its aggressively managed $36 billion portfolio shielded from taxes because of the educational institution it continues to run as a charity off to one side.
The numbers tell the story. These days Harvard’s 6,600 undergraduates are charged annual tuition of $44,000 per year, with substantial reductions for students from less wealthy families. So student tuition probably contributes much less than $200 million to Harvard’s annual revenue. Meanwhile, the hedge-fund side of Harvard’s operations last year generated a $5 billion return, an amount at least 25 times larger. If all of Harvard’s college students disappeared tomorrow, or attended classes without paying a dime, the financial impact on Harvard, Inc. would be completely negligible.
But although those tuition dollars mean almost nothing to Harvard, they are surely a daunting barrier and burden to almost any American family. An admissions process is flawed when a four-year total price tag approaching $250,000 probably deters many students from even applying.
Harvard claims to provide generous assistance, heavily discounting its nominal list price for many students from middle class or impoverished backgrounds. But the intrusive financial disclosures required by Harvard’s financial aid bureaucracy may be a source of confusion or shame to many working-class households. I also wonder how many lower-income families unfamiliar with our elite college system see such huge costs and automatically assume that Harvard is only open to the very rich.
Meanwhile, even some upper-middle-class parents — who are charged closer to full freight — must wonder if they can afford paying close to a quarter million dollars for a Harvard diploma.
Harvard’s enormous hedge-fund operation has avoided billions of dollars in government taxes. In exchange for this continuing tax benefit, Harvard should abolish all tuition for its undergraduates.
The announcement of a free Harvard education would capture the world’s imagination and draw a vastly broader and more diverse applicant pool, including many high-ability students who had previously limited their aim to their local state college.
Furthermore, everything I’ve said about Harvard applies equally well to most of America’s other top universities including Yale, Princeton and Stanford, which have also become huge untaxed hedge-funds that charge exorbitant tuition. They could just as easily provide free college educations to their students at little financial cost and great social benefit.
In recent decades a greater and greater fraction of our financial, media and political elites have been drawn from among the graduates of a small handful of our top colleges, whose enrollments are enormously skewed toward the wealthy and the well-connected. Having these colleges eliminate their tuition would be an important step toward reversing this unhealthy American polarization.
The reaction of the Times readership to my proposal was very positive and gratifying, and the idea began to play around in my head with increased seriousness.
For many years I’d been convinced that it made absolutely no financial sense for Harvard to charge tuition, and if the world’s most famous university took the radical step of abolishing such fees, the impact upon its rivals and lesser counterparts would be enormous. America’s hugely corrupt and bloated higher education sector would be greatly transformed for the better, with tremendous long-term consequences. If only Harvard President Drew Faust were daring enough to take such a bold step, she would instantly be proclaimed a global academic icon, probably becoming the most famous educator in modern world history. It seemed such a great pity that there was absolutely no chance she would ever consider taking such necessary and forceful action.
Then a couple of weeks later I received my annual ballots for the Harvard Board of Overseers, and it suddenly struck me that perhaps I could try to grasp the brass ring myself.
Although Harvard’s Board of Overseers possesses little legal power, it holds considerable prestige and authority, with eight of the university’s most distinguished and influential alumni annually nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association for the five open seats. Each year, the ballot statements of the nominated candidates were invariably total pablum, filled with vague promises to do their best to support their beloved alma mater, and although I almost always returned the mail-in ballot with my five marked choices, my selections were usually close to random.
However, in 1989 something quite different had happened. Overseer candidates could also be nominated by petition signatures, and a group of anti-Apartheid activists had placed several individuals on the ballot running on the platform that Harvard’s endowment should divest from all corporations doing business with white minority-ruled South Africa. Although Overseers had no authority over investment decisions and Harvard’s administrators and financial managers had strongly criticized the effort, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a couple of other candidates had won, and the following year Harvard had begun divesting, soon followed by several other elite universities. In effect, the Overseer vote had functioned as a popular referendum of the entire Harvard community, the 300,000 or so individuals who held graduate or undergraduate degrees.
I realized that I could use the same methods to enact my proposals. If I organized a full slate of candidates and most or all of them won, the world’s wealthiest and most influential university might feel enormous pressure to implement our campaign proposals, and would probably do so. Such a strategy seemed breathtakingly bold, but it might succeed.
It was now late April and the Overseer nominations opened near the end of the year, so I began planning the necessary steps, keeping the idea entirely to myself to avoid the disruption of early attention.
I decided that the platform of our slate of candidates would focus upon two of the key issues at the heart of my Meritocracy critique. We would propose that Harvard provide greater transparency in its admissions process, thereby allowing a closer investigation of likely anti-Asian discrimination, and we would also ask for the immediate abolition of undergraduate tuition.
I believed that these issues would probably attract a great deal of media coverage, and their enormous popularity might easily carry our slate to victory. After all, something like 20% of the potential Harvard voters were themselves Asian, and anti-Asian discrimination had become a hot topic over the last few years, so many or most of them might give us their votes. Four years of Harvard undergraduate tuition now totaled around $180,000, and eliminating it would be a very tempting idea both for the families of current students and those who might attend in the future. I began asking a few of my friends whether they thought people would be willing to check a simple box on a piece of paper if it might save them almost $200,000, and although most of them thought it was some sort of strange, trick question, they generally said yes.
With a little effort, I came up with a descriptive name for the project—the “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” campaign—simple and easy for people to remember, and I later produced a reasonably attractive logo. As a single unified slate of five candidates, we would benefit from the concentrated votes of our adherents, while our opponents would have their votes spread out over the eight regular nominees. No one had ever tried anything like this in Harvard’s nearly 300 year history, so success was far from certain, but I felt that under the right circumstances our chances would be pretty good.
As my Times column had emphasized, the possible impact of the project might extend far beyond Harvard. A victory would place enormous pressure upon some of the other wealthy, top-elite universities such as Yale, Princeton, and Stanford to take similar steps, and if they did, a tidal wave might begin sweeping across American higher education, transforming both admissions and tuition policies. The changes would be greater than anything that had happened to American universities in at least two or three generations, perhaps even a century or more. My original Meritocracy article had sharply criticized the pernicious social consequences of our existing system:
But given such massive social and economic value now concentrated in a Harvard or Yale degree, the tiny handful of elite admissions gatekeepers enjoy enormous, almost unprecedented power to shape the leadership of our society by allocating their supply of thick envelopes. Even billionaires, media barons, and U.S. Senators may weigh their words and actions more carefully as their children approach college age. And if such power is used to select our future elites in a corrupt manner, perhaps the inevitable result is the selection of corrupt elites, with terrible consequences for America.
I now envisioned a means of rectifying that system, like a skilled jeweler in a Hollywood movie splitting a rough diamond by a single hard tap in exactly the right location.
Later that year, the influential Economist fortuitously published a 2,800 word briefing on anti-Asian discrimination in elite admissions, and its update of my own analysis demonstrated that little had changed in three years. I dropped notes about this unfortunate situation to the circle of individuals who shared my views, arguing that Harvard and the Ivies were “extremely tough nuts to crack.”
As I’ve always told people, our elite universities represent an *enormous* concentration of soft power, and they’re very entrenched on their admissions policies. I doubt even a $100M advertising campaign or a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling would really change things. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s any single individual on the planet who deploys the influence to overcome their determined resistance. If Obama or George Soros or the Pope got into a wrestling match with Harvard and the Ivies, I’d certainly put my money on the latter.
But I cryptically added that I had worked out a political/media strategy that might suddenly change everything.
Indeed, given the broader influence of our elite universities, success in my planned venture might be enormously consequential in ways even extending far beyond America’s university system. Although I obviously never discussed those broader implications at the time, a couple of years ago I sketched out the grandiose scenario that had soon entered my thoughts:
(1) A victory for our slate would probably have put us on the front-pages of half the world’s newspapers, giving us gigantic media momentum and putting enormous pressure on Harvard.
(2) One or two people who knew President Faust fairly well had told me she wasn’t very tough-minded, and since abolishing undergrad tuition required such a trivial amount of endowment spending, she and the Board would have almost certainly folded immediately and done so.
(3) I doubt that even 5% of the Harvard community who heard of our campaign regarded our free tuition proposal as “real.” But suddenly the next year their tuition would have gone from $50,000 to ZERO! All the 6,500 students and their (affluent, influential) parents would have been utterly flabbergasted, and they would have then backed us on anything else. Our political capital at Harvard would have been almost unlimited.
(4) Immediately thereafter, copycat campaigns would have been launched to zero out tuition at Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, while MIT and Caltech would have also gone along, plus maybe a few other sufficiently-wealthy universities. With Harvard having set the example, I assume most of these other campaigns would have quickly succeeded. And our political capital would then have extended into most of America’s most elite universities.
(5) To nail down our effective control of Harvard, we could have sponsored additional Harvard slates the following couple of years, while also blowing the lid on the Asian Quota and other admissions bias and academic corruption issues, helping to organize additional copycat campaigns at the other elite colleges. Maybe we would then also eliminate tuition at some of the graduate schools or do various other worthwhile things.
(6) Taken together, I’d say that Harvard and the Ivies constitute one of the world’s greatest reservoirs of soft power, and tens of thousands of their students and families would owe us billions in financial savings, giving us substantial control over all that soft power, which we could then deploy for all sorts of other useful national and international projects.
A Star Wars metaphor had always been in the back of my mind: a five-man commando team sneaks into the Death Star and seizes its control room, then uses the Death Star to subdue the entire Galactic Empire…
Given those visions of the sweeping possible impact and with half a year to go until the new Overseers nominations opened, I spent a few months finishing up some of my existing software work, and then began carefully laying the groundwork for a strong Harvard campaign.
As the organizer of the effort, I decided I needed to burnish my own academic credentials as much as possible. I was on quite friendly terms with a couple of Harvard’s most eminent scholars, who had been very impressed by my Meritocracy analysis. They had occasionally shared their negative views of the entrenched administrative bureaucracy that actually ran their university, which sometimes favored policies harmful to educational excellence and research scholarship. Under the right circumstances, I even hoped they might consider lending their public support to our redemptive effort, and the last thing I wanted was to be portrayed by our opponents as a philistine interloper from the business world seeking to wrangle a Harvard seat for reasons of personal aggrandizement.
Although my scholarly credentials had once been strong, I had defected from the academic community more than a quarter century earlier, and lacked the advanced degrees or publication history that many might consider appropriate for someone seeking to influence such an august intellectual institution. I’d been on friendly terms for years with a number of highly-regarded writers and scholars who respected my work, but I felt I needed to provide that evidence in a weighty and concrete form, so I decided that publishing a collection of my essays might be the best means of accomplishing this.
Obviously, I lacked the substantial visibility to attract the interest of a mainstream publishing house and I anyway soon discovered that the production lead-times would be far too long. But the costs and difficulty of self-publishing a volume had greatly diminished, and with a few months of effort I was able to put together an attractive hard-cover edition of my substantial essays, which ran over 500,000 words and would be available on Amazon. Once the proof copy was ready, I managed to secure some flattering cover-blurbs from individuals whom I greatly respected:
With high intelligence, common sense, and advanced statistical skills, presented transparently and accessibly, Ron Unz has for decades been addressing key issues in a rapidly changing America, enlightening us on the implications and effects of bilingual programs in American schools, clarifying the issues around crime and immigration so often distorted in political and popular discussion, placing the question of an increased minimum wage effectively on the national agenda, and addressing most provocatively the issue of affirmative action and admission to selective colleges and universities, revealing some aspects of this ever disputed question that have never been noted or discussed publicly before. He is one of our most valuable discussants and analysts of public issues.—Nathan Glazer, Professor Emeritus of Education and Sociology, Harvard University, and author of Beyond the Melting Pot.
Few people on the planet are smarter than Ron Unz or have more intellectual curiosity. This fascinating and provocative collection of essays explores a remarkable range of topics, many of them high profile, some of them arcane. Unz’s analysis is always serious and invariably challenges prevailing wisdoms, which is to say there are a lot of controversial arguments in this book. No one is likely to agree with every one of his conclusions, but we would be better off if there were more people like Ron Unz among us. —John J. Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and author of The Israel Lobby.
Ron Unz is a brilliant essayist. His interests run from ancient history and black holes to contemporary issues like racial quotas and the minimum wage. He moves swiftly to the heart of a subject with cogent analysis and limpid argument. This collection of essays sparkles with unexpected gems ranging from critiques of the mainstream press to appreciation of dissenters from common wisdom such as General Bill Odom and Alexander Cockburn. In every paragraph of these essays the reader enjoys a penetrating intelligence at work. —Nicholas Wade, former writer and editor for The New York Times, and author of Before the Dawn, The Faith Instinct, and A Troublesome Inheritance.
Over the past two decades as an original thinker and writer Ron Unz has tackled complex and significant subjects such as immigration, education, economics, race, and the press, pushing aside common assumptions. This book brings together in one volume these pieces from a variety of publications. Unlike other essayists on culture and politics, Unz shreds ideology and relies on statistical data to support his often groundbreaking ideas, such as his 2010 essay on “The Myth of Hispanic Crime.” And his 2014 efforts to put a $12 an hour minimum wage bill before California voters is an example of how the action of an individual can draw public attention to an issue he believes is necessary for the economic health of the Republic. Anyone reading this book will learn a great deal about America from an incisive writer and scholar who has peeled back layers of conventional wisdom to expose the truth on issues of prime importance today. —Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer-Prize winning former reporter and editor for The New York Times, whose story inspired the 1984 film The Killing Fields.
Provocative and fearless, sometimes infuriating, and quite often, persuasive. And when American’s low-wage workers get their coming big raise, the apostate conservative Ron Unz will deserve a decent share of the credit. —Prof. James K. Galbraith, author of The End of Normal and Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe.
As I had in my other political ventures, I intended to rely heavily upon the media for success in my Harvard undertaking, and I felt reasonably confident in that regard.
I expected that a public campaign demanding that Harvard cut its annual tuition from $45,000 to zero would certainly attract a great deal of attention, as would the revelation that the financial impact upon the university would be negligible. My 2012 column denouncing the school as a tax-exempt hedge-fund in disguise had been widely circulated within the media.
I’d produced a striking graph at the time demonstrating the apparent anti-Asian bias in Ivy League admissions, which was republished by the Times and widely circulated online, serving as the visual cutting-edge of my 26,000 word article.
So now I designed an equally striking chart showing the gigantic imbalance between Harvard’s investment income and its tuition revenue, suggesting that it was more of a hedge-fund than an institution of higher education, and could eliminate tuition with negligible financial impact. This would highlight the summary explanation of our “Free Harvard” campaign:
As Harvard Overseers we would demand the immediate elimination of all tuition for undergraduates since the revenue generated is negligible compared to the investment income of the endowment.
Over the last quarter century, Harvard University has transformed itself into one of the world’s largest hedge-funds, with the huge profits of its aggressively managed $38 billion portfolio shielded from taxes because of the educational institution it continues to run as a charity off to one side.
The numbers tell the story. Each year, the investment income the university receives from its private equity and securities holdings averages some twenty-five times larger than the net tuition revenue from its 6,600 undergraduate students. Under such circumstances, continuing to charge tuition of up to $180,000 for four years of college education is unconscionable.
Admittedly, Harvard does exempt from tuition families earning less than $65,000 per year and provides some financial aid to families with incomes up to $150,000. But relatively few less affluent families even bother applying because they assume that a Harvard education is reserved only for the rich.
If Harvard abolished tuition the announcement would reach around the world, and soon nearly every family in America would be aware that a Harvard education was now free. Academically-successful students from all walks of life would suddenly begin to consider the possibility of attending Harvard. Other very wealthy and elite colleges such Yale, Princeton, and Stanford would be forced to follow Harvard’s example and also abolition tuition. There would be considerable pressure on all our public colleges and universities to trim their bloated administrative costs and drastically cut their tuition.
A closely related chart showed that the same situation existed at Harvard’s closest peers of Yale, Princeton, and Stanford.
Meanwhile, my previous chart played a similar role in the summary of the “Fair Harvard” goals:
As Harvard Overseers we would demand far greater transparency in the admissions process, which today is opaque and therefore subject to hidden favoritism and abuse.
In his book The Price of Admission Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Daniel Golden has described the strong evidence of corrupt admissions practices at Harvard and other elite universities, with the children of the wealthy and the powerful regularly granted admission over the more able and higher-achieving children of ordinary American families. In some cases, millions of dollars may have been paid to purchase an admissions slot for an undeserving applicant.
A nation that selects its elites by corrupt means will produce corrupt elites. These abuses must end.
Also, just as their predecessors of the 1920s always denied the existence of “Jewish quotas,” top officials at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the other Ivy League schools today strongly deny the existence of “Asian quotas.” But there exists powerful statistical evidence to the contrary.
During the last twenty-five years, the size of America’s college-age Asian population has more than doubled but there has been no corresponding increase in the number of Asians admitted to Harvard, with the federally-reported statistics actually showing a decline. Thus, the relative percentage of the Asian-American population attending Harvard has dropped by over 50 percent, while the percentage of whites has changed little. A very similar pattern of declining Asian enrollment has occurred at most of the other Ivy League universities, while at meritocratic Caltech, Asian enrollment has increased along with the size of the Asian-American population.
Racial discrimination against Asian-American students has no place at Harvard University and must end.
Just a year earlier I’d successfully used the vehicle of my California minimum wage initiative to focus a great deal of public attention upon that policy issue, shifting the entire national consensus as a consequence; and although my measure had failed to reach the ballot, my media credibility was consequently far stronger than it had been in at least a decade.
From an ideological perspective, although most liberals now generally supported affirmative action, they also somewhat inconsistently tended to oppose anti-Asian discrimination, and they certainly favored greater transparency in admissions, which was all we would be demanding. So I expected that we would be operating within a reasonably receptive media environment.
After I’d published my Meritocracy article in 2012, the New York Times had been very sympathetic to the Asian Quota analysis I provided, quickly organizing an on-line symposium on the subject, while running an opinion column by an Asian-American academic in the print edition, and much of the rest of the mainstream media had also been quite friendly. Forcing ultra-wealthy Harvard to abolish tuition would surely be a dream come true for progressives. Meanwhile conservatives would be even more supportive of both of our central planks, given their distaste for racial preferences in admissions policy and their intense hostility to all the elite universities, which they would love to see taken down a peg or two.
Moreover, the two elements of my platform—reducing anti-Asian bias in Harvard admissions and eliminating undergraduate tuition—had both been proposed in columns I had published in the Times, and these had now prompted my planned effort. Surely, the editors of the Gray Lady would be thrilled at the possibility that the political proposals they had recently presented on their opinion pages might so quickly be implemented at the world’s most prestigious university, giving them a proprietary interest in my project. And with the Times in support, I would have the wind at my back, with the rest of the media surely following in its wake.
Finalizing my book ultimately absorbed much more time and effort than I had expected, but by mid-November I cautiously contacted the university to determine the exact mechanics of qualifying for the Harvard ballot, which I discovered was straightforward if a little unusual. Based upon recent turn-out, merely 201 valid signatures were required from among the 320,000 holders of a Harvard degree, but these had to be recorded upon specially watermarked petitions printed and distributed by the university itself, and then returned by February 1st. My California initiatives had required many hundreds of thousands of voter signatures to reach the ballot, so this seemed an easy burden by comparison. I wasn’t exactly sure how the Harvard administration would react to the potential challenge I was organizing, so I merely said I was thinking of running for the Board of Overseers and asked them to provide the necessary petitions, which they soon sent me.
Throughout the year, I had also been giving careful thought to which individuals I would recruit as members of my slate, and had put together a list of eight or ten good prospects, mostly focusing upon prominent academics with whom I was friendly. I felt confident that these would yield the four names that I needed once I explained my plan.
By early December, I was ready to launch my project and began taking a few others into my confidence, including both prospective members of my slate and other individuals whose opinions I respected. Nearly all of them were shocked at the audacity of my proposal but most agreed with me about its potential impact. At the very least, they thought it might generate some attention for the Asian Quotas issue, in which many of them had been directly involved.
Some of these highly-placed academics personally moved in the circle of Harvard’s president, and they thought that my strategy had an excellent possibility of success. If we won, Harvard’s leadership would probably fold rather than trying to strongly resist our proposals on the tuition or the transparency issues.
Unfortunately, recruiting my prospective candidates proved much more difficult than I had expected. Economist James Galbraith had given an early boost to my minimum wage project a few years earlier and he was the first individual whom I solicited; but he was totally preoccupied with the global debt crisis, traveling to speak at numerous international conferences and working with Greece’s high-profile finance minister, a long-time friend. Yale Law Prof. Amy Chua—of Asian Tiger Mom fame—had been quite impressed with my original Meritocracy article, inviting me to her university for a couple of speaking engagements; but she had already come under harsh ideological attacks, and wanted to avoid further controversy. A prominent Harvard professor begged off on the reasonable grounds that as a faculty member, he had an obvious conflict of interest.
The other names on my list also proved much less willing than I had expected, perhaps viewing my daring plan as a quixotic, hopeless effort. Admittedly, it sounded like an insane undertaking. Could the world’s wealthiest, most powerful university, possessing an ocean of soft power, $38 billion of financial assets, and 16,000 employees fall victim to a sudden political coup d’etat carried out by five private individuals, backed by no one except themselves?
So as the days of December passed, I was still struggling to put together a reasonably strong slate of candidates. Many of the individuals I had contacted were involved in the Asian Quotas controversy, and some of them put me in touch with others they knew who had a strong Harvard connection. Several excellent academics and policy experts seemed interested, but they were already involved in the Harvard lawsuit, and they ultimately decided that their election to the Board of Overseers would represent an obvious conflict of interest.
Investigative journalist Daniel Golden had won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the corrupt nature of university admissions, and his 2006 classic The Price of Admission had been very widely and favorably reviewed, serving as one of my own core research texts. He seemed an absolutely ideal choice, but he balked. I later heard that his influential book had actually generated many hard feelings at his Harvard alma mater, and he had spent years working to repair those relationships, so he obviously didn’t want to reopen old wounds.
By mid-December, I had finally managed to secure three other names for the slate, and was desperately seeking a fourth, when I suddenly realized that progressive icon Ralph Nader had been a graduate of Harvard Law. I’d worked closely with him during my minimum wage effort, and quickly tried to contact him. He didn’t use email and was spending a week as a featured speaker on the Nation‘s annual fund-raising cruise, but when he returned I finally managed to reach him in a phone call and explain the situation. Being in his eighties, he was initially quite reluctant to participate, concerned about the number of meetings he might have to attend or the other possible burdens, but over a period of about two weeks, I gradually won him over, and by early January America’s legendary consumer advocate had agreed to lead our Free Harvard/Fair Harvard slate.
So despite the unexpected difficulties in recruiting candidates, our ultimate slate was far stronger than I had originally expected.
Ralph Nader – Citizen Activist and Author, The Center for the Study of Responsive Law. B.A. Princeton University, LL.B., Harvard Law. During the fifty years since the publication of his landmark 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, Mr. Nader has regularly been ranked as one of the most influential figures in American society, challenging large institutions on issues of administrative transparency, financial propriety, and consumer protection. Throughout his long career, he has established or inspired dozens of nonprofit organizations, including Public Citizen and the state PIRGs, and spurred the passage of major federal consumer laws such as the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Freedom of Information Act, while helping to launch regulatory agencies such as OSHA and the EPA.
Ron Unz – Software Developer and Chairman, UNZ.org and Publisher of The Unz Review. A.B., Harvard College; graduate degrees from Cambridge University and Stanford University. A past first-place winner of the Intel/Westinghouse Science Talent Search, Mr. Unz was the co-founder of Wall Street Analytics, Inc., has published widely on public policy issues, including the admissions and financial malfeasance of many of our elite universities, and has organized and led several successful initiative campaigns.
Stephen Hsu – Professor of Theoretical Physics and Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, Michigan State University. B.S., Caltech; Ph.D. U.C. Berkeley; Junior Fellow, Harvard Society of Fellows. The co-founder of two software companies, Prof. Hsu serves as an advisor to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and has written widely on public policy issues, including the indications of anti-Asian discrimination at elite universities.
Stuart Taylor, Jr. – Author, journalist, lawyer, and Brookings Institution nonresident senior fellow. A.B., Princeton University; J.D., Harvard Law. During 35 years as a prominent writer, Mr. Taylor covered legal affairs and then the Supreme Court from 1980-1988 for The New York Times and has since written commentary for American Lawyer Media, National Journal, Newsweek, and other publications, with many broadcast appearances and journalism awards. He has co-authored two critically acclaimed books, Mismatch and Until Proven Innocent.
Lee C. Cheng – Chief Legal Officer, Newegg, Inc. A.B., Harvard College; J.D., Boalt Hall School of Law, UC Berkeley. A co-founder of the Asian-American Legal Foundation, Mr. Cheng has been actively involved for over two decades in issues related to anti-Asian discrimination at secondary schools, colleges, and universities.
During this same period, I had been preparing my all-important effort to secure the necessary media coverage that would make or break my project. As always, the New York Times constituted the top of the media food chain, and I planned to offer them an exclusive in hopes of attracting their interest. Unfortunately, I couldn’t begin approaching them until at least most of my slate of candidates had been selected and once I did the editor I contacted was a little dubious that their newsdesk would be interested. But after a few blind alleys I finally managed to get in touch with their higher education reporter just before the end of the year, dropping her a note with a summary of the project and then speaking with her on the phone.
She was an experienced, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and very properly began our lengthy conversation with a rigorous and highly skeptical attitude. She carefully questioned me on some of the very surprising claims I was making, especially with regard to the astonishing size of Harvard’s investment income relative to its tuition revenue, as indicated in the shocking chart I had sent her. But all my factual information checked out, and I also immediately fedexed her for New Year’s Eve delivery a thick package of documentation and additional background information, including hard copies of my many articles. Several of my fellow slate-members had been very actively involved in the Asian Quota issue, and over the next few days she spoke to them at length, with everything going very well. Stuart Taylor Jr. had spent eight years covering the Supreme Court for the Times itself prior to her own arrival, and had a great deal of legal expertise on the admissions issues. We continued to exchange emails as her story came together, just after New Year’s day.
I had given her the names of the four members already on our slate and mentioned that I was still pursuing a fifth, a potentially big name. She told me that her editor was enthusiastic about the story, but probably would be reluctant to run it until the slate was finalized, so I took her into my confidence and revealed that I’d spent nearly two weeks talking with Ralph Nader, whom I hoped to recruit, but otherwise would have to go with a fall-back option. As I explained at the beginning of my note:
The fifth person I’ve been hoping to get is Ralph Nader. Not only is he a very Big Name, but I thought the issue was ideal for him, since he’s spent his entire career focusing on issues of transparency, institutional malfeasance, and reducing the absurd costs imposed upon consumers by self-interested bureaucracies, while he’s also a graduate of Harvard Law. Having him lead the campaign that might abolish tuition for Harvard students and perhaps produce similar results at many other colleges would be a great capstone to his half-century long career.
I had been desperately juggling all these balls in the air for several weeks, but fortunately the next morning Nader agreed to join our slate, and I immediately passed on the good news to Times reporter. She quickly contacted him by phone to confirm his participation, got a few useful quotes, and finished her article. She told me it was scheduled to run the next day, but just as I had hoped, Nader’s involvement immediately made it a much bigger story, and after showing it to her editor, she mentioned that she was “trying to levitate it onto page 1,” which is where it ultimately appeared.
None of my previous political campaigns had ever been launched with a front-page story in the Times, the sort of public prominence normally reserved for a major presidential initiative, and I was obviously thrilled. So despite all the delays and difficulties along the way, my media efforts had culminated in a far greater success than I had ever hoped or expected.
But that very success may have set the stage for the ultimate failure of my project.
Up to this point in time, everything at the Times had gone almost ideally well, and with a strong front-page launch I believed our media momentum would be enormous. Sen. Bernie Sanders, then near the height of his political influence, had made free public college tuition one of his leading issues, and our campaign to do the same at America’s most elite private university would surely attract his support and the multitude of his followers. I expected Harvard’s resistance to crumble before the battering-ram of public attention that would be unleashed.
But instead of appearing in the next day’s paper, I received a lengthy and detailed follow-up note apparently based upon questions forcefully raised by the Times editors. Was our project merely a disguised attack upon affirmative action, as suggested by the public views of several of our slate members? Wasn’t Lee Cheng the co-founder of an organization that had filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit against Harvard? Was the whole campaign merely a trick, intended to allow an “anti-affirmative-action slate” to ride to victory on the back of a wildly popular (and “less contentious”) proposal to abolition tuition at Harvard? So what “EXACTLY” did we mean by our “Fair Harvard” proposal?
I responded at considerable length, and I think I made a very persuasive case, partly because everything I said was entirely true and candid. For example, quite a number of the slate candidates I had unsuccessfully approached were decidedly on the Left and strong supporters of affirmative action, so the ultimate skew of our group was partly due to chance circumstances. Indeed, although all the members of our slate were strongly opposed to “Asian Quotas,” most of them considered themselves liberals, and claimed to actually favor “affirmative action” as they chose to define the notoriously ambiguous term. But the pushback and questioning continued, clearly prompted by heavy editorial pressure.
More than a week later, the article still hadn’t run in the Times, and I began to assume it had been killed, only to be very pleasantly surprised when it did finally appear on January 15th, Page One as promised. But the skew of the story seemed very different from what I think the original version had been. Although some attention was given to the radical tuition proposal, the focus was much more on affirmative action, and the possible connection to the ongoing conservative attempt to eliminate those programs, including by means of the lawsuit against Harvard likely to reach the Supreme Court. Inclusion of all the paragraphs focusing on the conservative drive against “racial preferences” had obviously required cuts elsewhere, and the striking figures I had provided on the enormous size of Harvard’s annual investment income relative to its tuition revenue had been left on the cutting-room floor.
The piece closed with the ironic detail that although some of the anti-Apartheid Overseer candidates of the early 1990s had won, most had lost, notably including the 1991 candidacy of a certain Barack H. Obama.
- How Some Would Level the Playing Field: Free Harvard Degrees
Stephanie Saul • The New York Times • January 15, 2016 • 1,400 Words
The overall tone was one of heavy suspicion that—despite Nader’s presence—-our project was part of a right-wing plot to destroy affirmative action. Just two years earlier, I had successfully orchestrated a nationwide drive to raise the minimum wage, as heavily covered in the Times itself, but that went unmentioned; instead I was identified as the leader of the anti-bilingual education campaigns of the late 1990s. Liberals or progressives reading the article might be intrigued by the tuition issue, but left extremely suspicious of the other elements, fearing they would be falling for a right-wing plot. The story seemed to present a flashing red warning sign to mainstream media editors and journalists, and as a result the huge tidal wave of political and media momentum I had counted upon never appeared. Indeed, there were far fewer follow-on stories than the launch of my minimum wage initiative had generated in late 2013, even though the Times had only run it on the inside pages.
Although I have no window into the editorial workings of the Times, I do have my suspicions. Stories slated to run on the front-page may come to the notice of top editors while lesser articles do not, and I think this may explain the striking shift in the apparent editorial sentiments that occurred around that point. Back in late 2012, my Asian Quota findings had been treated in very sympathetic fashion on the editorial side of the Times, and as late as April 2014, the paper had run a lengthy and reasonably respectful profile of the Republican architect of the subsequent Asian Quotas lawsuits against affirmative action. But in May 2014, Executive Editor Jill Abramson had suddenly been fired by the publisher, replaced by Dean Baquet, the first black to hold that position and himself an important beneficiary of an Ivy League college affirmative action program. All things considered, it wouldn’t surprise me if editorial intervention from a very high level had helped transform the story originally scheduled to run on Jan. 5th into the one that eventually appeared on Jan. 15th. Perhaps if a certain particular individual had been on vacation that week or preoccupied with other matters, the course of our campaign—and American higher education—might have followed a very different trajectory.
Although I was obviously disappointed with the negative tone of the Times story, I couldn’t blame the journalist given the strong pressure she had clearly faced from her editors. But since she might be writing future stories on our project, I wanted to completely dispel any suspicion that I’d somehow secretly orchestrated my efforts with the groups suing Harvard or other activists opposed to affirmative action. So I dropped her a lengthy note providing a very detailed and candid account of how my campaign had come about:
After an utterly exhausting Thursday, I woke up to an extremely pleasant surprise this morning: your great story on the front page of my NYT! I’m an old-fashioned print guy myself, and for me a news story isn’t “real” unless it’s in my morning newspapers and isn’t “big” unless its on the front page of the NYT or maybe the WSJ. Frankly, given all the delays and push-back you’d gotten from your editors, I’d written off the possibility of making page one. All’s well that ends well!
BTW, in reading the piece over again more carefully, I’d noticed quite a bit of discussion of the relationship between this effort and some of the ongoing lawsuits regarding admissions, including that case currently before the Supreme Court. Since none of this had come up in our original phone discussion, I should probably clarify the whole history in exhaustive detail for you.
(1) I’d been closely following all these admissions issues since the 1970s and over the years had written quite a lot about the topic. However, about 15-20 years ago I gradually decided that probably nothing would ever happen, and stopped paying any attention to the issue. I vaguely know that during the 2000s there were several different lawsuits that went up and down the courts, sometimes even reaching SCOTUS, but their details are a little fuzzy to me and all my information tended to come from the occasional articles in the NYT or my other newspapers.
(2) A few years ago, I was casually chatting with a former (white) classmate of mine at a Harvard reunion who did quite a lot of alumni interviewing in LA and he told me he was really shocked at some of the ultra-high-quality Asian-Am applicants which Harvard rejected. Then perhaps a year later, I happened to be reading Steve Hsu’s blog in which he had a number of posts relating to alleged anti-Asian discrimination at elite universities, which I thought seemed likely to be true. I mentioned to him at the time that I suspected I could find a statistical approach that might produce a real “Smoking Gun” on the matter and hoped to get around to looking into the subject when I was less busy with my software work. About a year later, I finally had some time, and sure enough the “Smoking Gun” popped right up, which persuaded me to write my 30,000 word Meritocracy article.
(3) The Meritocracy article and my “Asian Quota” graph got lots of attention, and sparked an NYT Symposium on the topic, to which I contributed. That’s how I got to know several of the various Asian-Am activists and groups such as 80-20. (Lee Cheng I’d known slightly since the mid-1990s but had completely lost touch with him a decade or more before). Naturally, Harvard and the Ivies didn’t pay the slightest attention to any of these complaints, so I just went back to my other work, still assuming nothing would ever happen.
(4) Supposedly my “Asian Quota” graph and the NYT Symposium it inspired spent the next couple of years circulating among Asian-Am activists, including that group in CA that last year quickly got 100,000 online signatures to protest the attempted repeal of Prop. 209 and also those 64(?) Asian-Am orgs that filed a complaint against Harvard earlier this year and also that lawsuit. I was too busy with my software work to pay any attention to these events, and all I know about them is what I read in my morning newspapers, including the NYT.
(5) Earlier this year Nick Fox solicited a contribution from me for a symposium on improving higher ed. I originally suggested my piece focus on my radical “random admissions” proposal for Harvard and the Ivies, which he thought was fine, but someone named Barry Schwartz had already grabbed that idea so (very fortunately!) I went with my backup idea of free tuition at Harvard and the Ivies, which I’d previously proposed in a sidebar to my Meritocracy article three years before.
(6) When I distributed my NYT piece lots of people told me what a great idea it was and hoped there was some way I could get it actually implemented, including a top AFL-CIO official I’d gotten friendly with from my Minimum Wage campaign, especially since the endowment income had grown so absurdly large over the years. The whole notion of Harvard still charging tuition seemed so totally ridiculous I told them maybe something could actually be done about it, and starting vaguely thinking if there some possible way to put pressure on Harvard. Then, a few weeks later, I suddenly got my Overseer idea, possibly because I’d gotten my annual ballot mailed out from Harvard in April. The idea seemed like such an excellent one that I was kicking myself for not having thought of it years before. Naturally, I also added the Asian Quota issue, since I’d actually been writing about it much longer.
(7) The crucial part of any political campaign is media coverage, and the media won’t cover what isn’t “new”. So I vaguely dropped a note to Steve Hsu saying that I’d come up with a very clever political/media strategy to finally fix the Asian Quota problem, but wouldn’t be able to get around to working on it until the end of the year. And for the next eight months I kept my planned project entirely to myself while I was busy with my software work and various other things. People in the political world tend to gossip an enormous amount and if I mentioned it to anyone at all, such a simple and exciting idea would surely have spread like wildfire, probably prompting numerous different activists of all sorts of backgrounds and views to plan on putting together candidates for the Harvard Overseer ballot. Plus since everyone would be talking about it, it would no longer be newsworthy when I launched my own effort, and neither the NYT nor anyone else would bother covering it.
(8) So until mid-December absolutely no one in the world was aware of my plan, though a couple of weeks before I’d dropped notes to a number of Asian-Am activists I’d known saying I might have a new project in the works and checking whether they were still active at all in the issue (Lee Cheng was, but I never heard back from several others, so I guess they weren’t). I did the same with Ralph Nader and his top assistant, plus quite a number of other people whom I thought might make pretty good prospective Overseer candidates.
(9) For various reasons I got delayed, and whereas I’d hoped to start telling people my plan and putting together my slate in early December, I didn’t get around to it until a week or two later in mid-December. Also, whereas Harvard had previously had a mid-February turn-in date for petitions, this time they’d changed it to Feb 1st, which made me nervous. Plus I discovered that only Harvard-printed petitions could be used. On the other hand, the number of signatures in the past had generally been closer to 250, and this time it was 201, which was easier.
(10) I’ve done a lot of successful campaigns over the years and I have a very good reputation for political effectiveness. But when I began approaching my prospective Overseer candidates in mid-December, most of them thought that this particular project was just *too* audacious, and balked at having their names associated with something that seemed so utterly hopeless: Mighty Harvard, with its $38 billion endowment and 100 PR professionals, falling to handful of people backed by no organization and recruited so near to the deadline. This was a disappointment, and I really had to scramble to somehow put together a slate of five solid candidates within the very tight timeline, made much more difficult by the Holidays. Also, Nader had been away for a week headlining the fundraising cruise of The Nation, and then was at his home in Connecticut, making things especially difficult with him, since he doesn’t use email or the Internet and never gives anyone his home phone or fax number. I also got in touch with the NYT towards the end of December, and Nick Fox passed me over to you.
(11) Fortunately, things ultimately worked out and I think we’re now in pretty good shape, especially given how much enthusiasm our signature drive seems to be getting. And if we do manage to get on the Overseer ballot—despite everything not at all a certainty—I feel quite confident we’ll win. And if we win, Mighty Harvard will quickly abolish tuition and (probably) increase the transparency of their admissions process.
(12) Finally, here’s a nice metaphor of mine you might appreciate. In the original Star Wars movie, there was that gigantic, invincible Death Star, totally invulnerable, except that if you dropped a hand-grenade down a particular exhaust-shaft, the entire moon-size space-fortress exploded. Harvard University is a seemingly invincible fortress, but I do think I’ve managed to locate the right exhaust-shaft, and so long as we can manage to drop 201 valid alumni signatures down that location in time, victory on all these seemingly impossible issues may well be ours.
Anyway, that’s the full saga of where this all came from. Partly I wrote this up just so I would have a nice future summary for myself.
As a consequence of these developments, our petition drive was to become a horrific nightmare. Media coverage had been a central element of my planned campaign and on Jan. 5th it looked like we were about to be launched with the unrivaled cannon-shot of a front-page Times story, which I felt I needed to protect. But if we began our public petitioning drive and our supporters spread the word to their many contacts, other media outlets would surely hear about our project and probably begin running their own stories, perhaps risking the placement of the Times article or even its appearance. So I assumed that the article would run any day, and urged everyone to sit tight and wait for it to appear, even as the clock ticked down towards Harvard’s February 1st deadline. I’d prepared hundreds of petition kits, stapled copies of the five candidate petitions together with signing instructions and a stamped, express-mail return envelope, and these were ready to be fedexed out, but we avoided any public announcement until the Times fired the starting gun. Media represented the absolutely central component of a successful political campaign.
But after a week’s delay vainly waiting for the Times story to run, I finally gave up and we began our petition drive, though without any public announcement, fedexing out our petition kits and urgently trying to locate additional potential signers. With only a couple of weeks until the deadline, we faced a desperate scramble.
Although I soon sent out hundreds of our petition packages and everyone had promised to immediately sign their names and drop them in the self-addressed express-mail envelopes I’d included, very few had been returned as the deadline drew near. The petitioning in all my initiative campaigns had always been handled by professional subcontractors without any involvement on my part, but I knew perfectly well that individuals often make mistakes on their petitions, change their minds, or forget their promises, and we had an exceptionally tight time-window.
We needed all five petitions properly signed, with the personal and business address information completed, as well as the year and type of the Harvard degree, all of which provided numerous opportunities for careless mistakes. Our success might cost Harvard billions of dollars in tuition revenue and the Harvard administrators would be the ones validating and counting the petitions, so I wondered if they would find enough disqualifying mistakes to keep us off the ballot. I felt like we were starring in a remake of Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
As the days passed with few petitions being returned, I became desperate. Stanford University was only a mile or two from my home, and I realized that many Harvard degree holders would be on the campus, so I set up a card-table in the central Quad with signs, petitions, and other materials, and spent a couple of days collecting a handful of additional signatures from curious passers-by, the first time in my life I’d ever personally done any petitioning.
Four days before the deadline, we had received fewer than half the necessary signatures, and I began to believe that our situation was hopeless. But then a huge wave of express-mail envelopes suddenly arrived, carrying us across the finish line. I described the belt-and-suspenders delivery plans I implemented:
This last Saturday night I took a red-eye flight to Boston accompanied by an all-important carry-on bag, containing some thirty pounds of signed nomination petitions for our Free Harvard/Fair Harvard campaign for the Harvard Board of Overseers.
With potentially major changes in the structure of American higher education hanging in the balance, I could not possibly trust Fedex or any other service for the safe Monday arrival of our petitions at the 17 Quincy Street Harvard offices, and hand-delivery seemed the only secure option. I’d originally planned my trip when huge winter storms had led to thousands of flight cancellations along the East Coast, so I separately booked both Saturday night and Sunday morning flights, with an eye towards possibly buying a last-minute third ticket to some other city along the Eastern Seaboard just in case snow blocked all incoming flights to Boston’s Logan Airport.
Despite all our concerns, we easily met our goals, and my heavy satchel on the flight to Boston Saturday night contained around 285 total signatures for most of our individual candidacies, providing a large safety margin over the required number. Virtually all our signers appeared absolutely legitimate, and unless the Harvard administrators choose to disqualify huge numbers of those alumni signatures on unreasonably trivial grounds, our slate will appear on the next Harvard Overseer ballot, with potentially major consequences. So we have now passed the first hurdle, though not without considerable nail-biting along the way.
The foot-high stack of paper I’d transported across the country was potentially worth billions of dollars, and I nervously dropped it off at the university offices first thing Monday morning. The Harvard administrators were absolutely professional, and within a couple of weeks we were informed that our names would appear on the Overseer ballot.
The second half of January had mostly been filled with our desperate scramble to obtain the necessary qualifying signatures, but other important developments occurred as well, especially on the all-important media front.
Although the highly suspicious tone of the Times story had probably prevented the enormous flood of follow-up mainstream media coverage I had once anticipated, brief items based upon the article did quickly appear in New York Magazine and Time, along with much more extensive international coverage in the London Telegraph, as well as Spanish, Turkish, and Chinese media outlets.
A couple of young journalists from the Harvard Crimson had immediately contacted us as well, and we quickly answered their questions and provided background materials, so the story they produced was quite balanced and even-handed, considerably more so than what had run in the Times. I’d already prepared complete media kits that I immediately fedexed out to any interested journalist, and I soon produced simple explanatory PDFs that could be emailed, so our extreme responsiveness to all journalistic inquiries served us very well.
A few days later, I received a note from John S. Rosenberg, editor of Harvard Magazine, saying he was interested in speaking to me for a possible article, and wondering when I might be available. I responded immediately, sending him some of our PDF materials, fedexing him a full media kit for morning delivery, and setting up an early interview call for the next day. We spent an hour or two on the phone, and he seemed extremely well informed and knowledgeable about all the issues, with everything going very well.
We exchanged some additional emails in the next couple of days, and I emphasized that some of Harvard’s own faculty members were quite sympathetic to our efforts:
Incidentally, I got a very nice note a few days ago from one of Harvard’s most eminent professors, with whom I’ve been friendly for 25 years. A few weeks ago I’d told him the new project I was planning to launch, and he’d been very surprised and happy to see it get on the front page of the NYT so quickly. We traded a couple of emails, and then he sent me this note:
Yes, I saw some of the Cooper Union story, did not the recall the stock market losses, I recall Cooper Union and its great role in NYC I also went to totally tuition free CCNY, even many of the texts were free, loaned out by the college. I wonder how NYC in the depression could afford the free city colleges, which then paid good faculty salaries, and why in a much wealthier country and city it requires state support in addition to city, and charges substantial tuition. A good subject for research. Harvard tuition was then I recall $500 or so—it’s close to 100 X that now, far exceeding inflation.
Rosenberg’s 9,000 word article on our campaign appeared just a few days later, and I was extremely impressed. He seemed to have very carefully read and digested the 30,000 words of my published articles I had fedexed him, also doing the same for the writings of my fellow slate-members, and then contrasted our analysis that with the positions taken by his own university’s senior officials, past and present. The bulk of his piece was devoted to the complex issue of Harvard admissions policies, now the subject of ongoing litigation, but he still devoted a couple of thousand words to the university’s finances and the implications of our proposal to eliminate tuition. The overall presentation seemed scrupulously fair and even-handed and in the months that followed he would produce several additional articles, with the series totaling over 20,000 words, certainly constituting by far the best and most thorough discussion of our campaign and the related issues that would appear anywhere.
- Overseers Petitioners Challenge Harvard Policies
John S. Rosenberg • Harvard Magazine • January 27, 2016 • 9,000 Words
Harvard Magazine was a glossy alumni publication with production values comparable to those of the New Yorker or Vanity Fair, mailed out six times each year to more than 250,000 of the alumni. Given the length of his treatment and the importance of the topic, I very much hoped it would go out in the next issue of his own magazine, perhaps even running as the cover story. But such fancy print publications have long preparation lead-times, and the outstanding article only appeared in online form, so relatively few members of the Harvard community probably ever saw it.
Since I had hand-delivered the petitions to Harvard’s offices, I used the opportunity of my trip to try to gauge the sentiments of the Harvard community toward our proposal and also to generate a little additional media coverage. As I wrote after my return to California:
Because I arrived in Cambridge very early Sunday morning and the Harvard offices did not open until Monday, I decided to spend the day trying to pad our numbers by doing some personal petitioning in Harvard Square and at various places around the university, having brought along some signs, large charts, and hand-outs to support such an effort.
During a full day of energetic petitioning, my success rate ran 100% among those who stopped in curiosity, asked questions, then declared themselves to be holders of Harvard degrees eligible to sign. Unfortunately, that total came to merely two individuals, as a cold New England Sunday deterred the busy and the sensible from dawdling in conversation with some obvious political crackpot sermonizing on Harvard’s vast wealth and absurdly promising to abolish Harvard tuition as a consequence.
A couple of pleasant young Crimson reporters also spent an hour or so reporting on my petitioning efforts and interviewing me, with a picture taken by their staff photographer and displayed on the front-page of their Monday newspaper accurately capturing the somewhat amusing street scene. Frankly, I doubt if even a single passer-by that day actually believed that my remarkably quixotic proposal had the slightest prospect of actual real-world success.
Still, a much larger number of current Harvard students or casual visitors did stop, listen, and take away some of our materials, and of these individuals not one opposed our project, with the great majority being enthusiastic supporters. So the secondary goal of my petitioning—to gauge the political temperature in the Harvard community—proved much more encouraging and successful.
On Monday morning, I waited in my local hotel for the fedex deliveries of those petitions signed too late to reach me on Saturday in California, then took a taxi and lugged my heavy bag of petitions to the Harvard offices for delivery to the friendly staff located there, receiving a signed receipt in return.
I then picked up a couple of copies of the Crimson issue featuring my local petitioning efforts, as well as President Drew Faust’s sharp rebuttal to our proposals, and went to have a cup of coffee with John S. Rosenberg, editor of Harvard Magazine. Just a few days earlier, I had been stunned by the sudden appearance of his remarkably long (9,000 words), thorough, and even-handed article on our Free Harvard/Fair Harvard campaign, and I was very glad to have an opportunity to meet the author himself and explain some of my forthcoming plans for the coming months. Afterwards I took a taxi to WBUR, Boston’s local NPR station, which had invited me to do a long in-studio interview segment on our campaign, which I think went quite well.
I returned to California with a tremendous sense of relief. I’d been involved in political campaigns for more than twenty years, but the previous few weeks had been among the most challenging and hectic of my entire life. After quietly plotting my campaign for nearly a year, I had struggled tremendously in trying to recruit a credible slate of candidates, then faced even greater difficulties in obtaining the necessary alumni signatures. Despite suffering through these two political near-death experiences, our campaign had survived and our names would appear on the Overseer ballot.
A huge backlog of other matters had accumulated over the previous thirty days, including issues connected with the production of my essay collection, and once the books were printed and available, I used Amazon to send copies to many dozens of the journalists and other individuals on my distribution list, hoping that the text would enhance my credibility and the weight of our project. I handled a couple of additional media inquiries, hoping that these would gradually grow in number. I also finished building our new website, which I intended to serve as a go-to source of information for the journalists covering our campaign, thereby allowing us to shape their resulting coverage. Finally, I put together a simple FAQ sheet responding to the weak arguments that Harvard officials or our other critics had been making, including with regard to the existing system of financial aid:
Q: Doesn’t generous financial aid mean that only the rich pay the high Harvard tuition?
A: Harvard officials sometimes make that claim, but it just isn’t true. Harvard’s website provides a “Net Price Calculator” that estimates the size of a family’s expected financial contribution based on the information supplied. If you plug in the income for a pair of New York City public schoolteachers, you discover that Harvard expects them to contribute a large portion of their life-savings—over $175,000—or even go heavily into family debt in order to allow their high-achieving son or daughter to obtain a Harvard degree. So unless you believe that public schoolteachers are part of America’s rich elite, Harvard’s claims aren’t correct. Meanwhile, Harvard remains mystified why relatively few middle-class families even bother applying, thereby ensuring that such a large fraction of all current undergraduates come from wealthy families.
Harvard administrators had also been claiming that any accusations of anti-Asian discrimination were obviously contradicted by the considerable rise in Asian-American enrollment since the 1980s, but their response failed to take into account the much greater increase in the Asian-American population during that same period. I soon produced a simple graph based upon these public numbers illustrating the dramatic 60% decline in per capita Asian enrollment over the previous twenty years. An enrollment drop of such size seemed very suspicious and inexplicable, and I passed it along to the Crimson reporters and other journalists, hoping that they would begin pressing the Harvard administration for an explanation, perhaps leading to additional news stories.
These points and many others were included in the series of columns I had been publishing and sending to my growing distribution list, summarizing the state of the campaign and responding to various arguments made by Harvard and our other opponents. Meanwhile, all of us also worked together to prepare the 250 word candidate statements that would be included in the Overseer ballot mailing.
- Meritocracy: Will Harvard Become Free and Fair?
The Unz Review • January 19, 2016 • 1,100 Words
- Meritocracy: How Harvard Currently Soaks the Rich…Such as NYC Public Schoolteachers
The Unz Review • February 4, 2016 • 2,200 Words
- Meritocracy: Harvard PR vs. Factual Reality
The Unz Review • February 15, 2016 • 1,200 Words
Aside from continuing to run my Unz Review webzine, other political projects also now absorbed some of my time. To date, my greatest personal achievement had been my highly successful late 1990s campaigns to dismantle so-called “bilingual education” programs in California and elsewhere, which had amounted to Spanish-almost-only instruction. I had transformed the lives of many millions of immigrant students, and the huge subsequent rise in their academic test scores had proven that I had been correct, so the whole issue had been settled and forgotten for many years. But in 2014, the determined bilingual activists had successfully lobbied the State Legislature into placing a repeal measure on the November 2016 ballot, and that vote was now fast approaching. So I dug out my stored boxes of materials and produced new “English” media kits and PDF scans of the old news stories, built a new website to help remind journalists and voters about those long-forgotten facts, and considered other possible ways to bring some attention to this important issue.
But as I took stock of our situation in late February, I felt quite good about our chances. Although the Times piece had proven a very mixed blessing, I felt that the excellent 9,000 word article in Harvard Magazine had made up for it, and I mistakenly assumed the piece would also appear in the next print issue, thereby reaching the entire Harvard alumni community and alerting them to our campaign and the issues we were raising just as they began receiving their ballots. Given the dismally low turnout in most Overseer elections, if even just 10% of the alumni read the story and agreed with our positions, we would probably win.
Although I effectively filled the role of political and media consultant for our campaign, we lacked the backing of any organization, which severely reduced our options. I’d invested a few hundred dollars producing a large batch of attractive campaign paraphernalia—tee-shirts, baseball caps, and buttons—all emblazoned with our logo, and these would have provided ideal visuals for media stories if we had been able to organize any public events or rallies. But since there were just the five of us, mostly preoccupied with their regular work, this wasn’t possible.
The Bernie Sanders phenomenon was near its peak and America’s most famous Democratic Socialist had made free college tuition one of his leading campaign issues, attracting enormous youthful support. With Ralph Nader heading up our slate, a highly flattering Times story would have probably brought us an immediate wave of enthusiastic Harvard students, eager to wear our tee-shirts and buttons and hold public rallies for our cause, whose success might save their families hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition; and this would have generated tremendous media coverage. But the sharply negative spin of the Times story completely foreclosed these possibilities. Indeed, although a wave of protests soon engulfed the Harvard Law School, with the students demanding that tuition be abolished, these progressive activists carefully avoided any association with our tainted campaign.
Conservative students, let alone opponents of affirmative action, were a tiny minority at Harvard, and although I might have tried to mobilize some of them for public events, any such ideological identification would surely have been severely damaging to our efforts.
I’d never personally used Facebook or Twitter, so one major, unrecognized weakness in our effort was its complete lack of presence on social media. These technologies had not existed during my political campaigns of the late 1990s, and were still very rudimentary during my abortive minimum wage campaign of late 2013, so I paid little attention to them.
Although I had acquired a great deal of expertise over the years in the media side of campaigning, my experience was entirely restricted to the traditional mainstream media, with its hierarchical top-down structure. So all my efforts to take our message to the Harvard alumni were aimed at shaping the coverage in the Times, the Crimson, Harvard Magazine and other regular media outlets, hoping that our potential voters would happen to see these pieces. Yet Facebook had originally been started as a Harvard-only network, and there were numerous Facebook groups for all the different alumni classes. It was a major failing that I had never planned to recruit individuals to distribute and promote our factual information or striking charts and graphs in that obvious channels of communication. Only Lee Cheng, the youngest member of our slate, was active on Facebook, and although he mentioned he was regularly engaging with our numerous critics on that platform, I initially paid little attention to the matter. As our severe weakness on social media became apparent, we did eventually run some basic Facebook ads linking to our website, but it was too little and too late.
This mistake became potentially more serious in early March when an organization was launched to oppose our campaign. As reported in the Crimson, the “Coalition for a Diverse Harvard” boasted nearly 500 alumni members, with its chief spokesperson being Jeannie Park ’83, a Korean-American activist while at Harvard who had later served as top editor of InStyle and People magazines in New York. The Times article had portrayed our effort as a disguised attack on affirmative action, and according to the Crimson account, this had outraged and mobilized the founders of this opposition group, exactly the sort of consequence I had feared. Their strategy was to provide all Overseer candidates with a questionnaire on affirmative action and diversity at Harvard, after which they would issue five endorsements. A lengthy follow-up article on the Harvard Magazine website provided many more details, and also raised some of the critiques of my original Meritocracy analysis that had been so exhaustively debated following its 2012 publication.
I probably paid much less attention to this new threat than I should have. The website I had built seemed far more comprehensive than their simple effort, and also provided an enormous amount of detailed factual information compared to their rather rhetorical content celebrating “diversity” so I didn’t take their effort very seriously. But what I failed to consider was that they had hundreds of determined members who were regularly presenting their arguments, weak though they might be, on all of Harvard’s many Facebook groups, while we probably only had three or four volunteer activists making the case on the other side. When the landscape of the media technology dominating politics radically changes, those who fail to adapt may be left behind.
Meanwhile, I continued to focus upon the traditional media, and here the tide remained very encouraging. The day after the Crimson revealed our new opponents, the Nation ran a major article entitled “Universities Are Becoming Billion-Dollar Hedge Funds With Schools Attached,” a piece that shamelessly cribbed the contents and even almost the title from my own past writings on that subject. Despite the focus on Harvard, our own campaign was never mentioned, but if the Times article had been favorable rather than portraying us as promoting an underhanded attack against affirmative action, I suspect that our efforts would have received a rousing endorsement from America’s left-liberal flagship publication.
The following week the influential Economist contacted me for an interview, and soon published a major story focused upon our campaign to eliminate tuition, treating it quite sympathetically. Soon after I had begun informing my DC friends about my project, Republican Rep. Tom Reed had introduced legislation requiring all wealthy universities to allocate at least 25% of their investment income to financial aid or lose their tax exemption, a proposal vastly more onerous than our own, and his bill was also discussed in the article. I regarded the Economist coverage as a major media coup, failing to consider that the story had probably reached just a tiny fraction of the number of Harvard alumni voters who spent each day on Facebook.
In late March, just before ballots were mailed out, Harvard Magazine published yet another comprehensive and even-handed article on the contest, primarily focusing on the contrasting positions of our own camp and those of our “pro-diversity” opponents. The piece also substantially excerpted a lengthy letter it had received from five past presidents of the Board of Overseers, strongly opposing our slate, which would be published in the print issue soon to be mailed out to all alumni. Their statement strongly defended Harvard’s admissions policies against our accusations of discrimination, and sharply criticized our proposal that tuition be abolished as “misguided.” This letter was also apparently emailed out to all members of the Harvard Alumni Association.
Although we had counted on much of this establishmentarian opposition, a completely unanticipated development that severely damaged our prospects was the sudden political rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries, as I explained at the time:
Without doubt the current election for the Harvard Board of Overseers must rank as the most significant and substantive of the last twenty-five years, perhaps even the last century. The results of our Free Harvard/Fair Harvard campaign could have tremendous national implications for tuition and admissions policy at our most elite colleges, with ripple effects upon all of American higher education.
Unfortunately, the ongoing national Trumpathon, with its endless series of Page One insults and crude slurs has captured an absolutely overwhelming share of American political attention, leaving relatively little for any other campaign, let alone a mere battle for the Harvard Board of Overseers. When The Dreadful Donald and Lyin’ Ted are trading staged photos of their wives in dress and undress on Twitter, why would anyone in America care whether elite college tuition might be abolished?
If not for Trump, the widely expected presidential contest between bland front-runners Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would have prompted bored national political reporters to desperately seek out more interesting topics, and surely our own campaign would have been a major beneficiary of that coverage. But instead Trump now entirely dominated the national stage, choking off all of our media-oxygen, so I began to consider different ways of attracting additional attention. A daring possibility came to mind, one that I ultimately decided to pursue.
As some of you may have already heard, a few days ago I made a last-minute decision to enter the U.S. Senate race for the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer in California. I took out my official papers early Monday morning and returned them with the necessary 65 signatures of registered voters on Wednesday afternoon, the last possible day for filing.
I am certainly under no illusions that my candidacy is anything but a tremendous long-shot. Over the two decades that have passed since Gov. Pete Wilson’s Prop. 187 campaign, California has been transformed into what amounts to a one-party Democratic state, with Republicans holding not a single statewide office and barely one-third of the State Legislature; GOP presidential campaigns rarely invest any time or money in hopeless pursuit of California’s 55 electoral votes. With the sole exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger—who was obviously a special case—not a single Republican has won a top-ticket statewide race since 1994, with candidates often losing by 20-25 points despite spending many millions or even tens of millions on their campaigns; and virtually all down-ticket Republican candidates have generally lost by comparable margins.
But the flip-side of this difficult situation is that the California Republican Party is so extremely feeble these days that my entrance into the race would hardly face strong GOP rivals. Neither of the other two Republicans running has ever held any elective office or boasts significant political accomplishments, they were tied at 3% in the most recent polls, and after a full year of campaigning, each had only raised about $50,000. As most readers are well aware, I’m hardly an ultra-wealthy “checkbook” candidate able to spend unlimited sums, but dollars in that sort of range I can easily handle.
The primary factor behind this sudden decision on my part was the current effort by the California Democrats and their (totally worthless) Republican allies to repeal my 1998 Prop. 227 “English for the Children” initiative. Although the English immersion system established in the late 1990s was judged an enormous educational triumph by nearly all observers, and the issue has long since been forgotten, a legislative ballot measure up for a vote this November aims to undo all that progress and reestablish the disastrously unsuccessful system of Spanish-almost-only “bilingual education” in California public schools:
After considering various options, I decided that becoming a statewide candidate myself was the probably the best means of effectively focusing public attention on this repeal effort and defeating it.
An important factor in my decision-making was the strong likelihood that Donald Trump would be the Republican presidential nominee. He and his campaign would almost certainly support keeping English in the public schools, but for obvious reasons he would hardly be the best political figure to be strongly identified with the No campaign. However, if I were a statewide candidate myself, heavily focusing on that issue, my standing as the original author of Prop. 227 would give me an excellent chance of establishing myself as the main voice behind the anti-repeal campaign. I also discussed the possibility of this race with some of my fellow Harvard Overseer slate-members, and they strongly believed that my candidacy would be far more likely to help rather than hurt our efforts, which was another major consideration in my decision. Furthermore, running for office provides me with an opportunity to raise all sorts of other policy issues often ignored by most political candidates or elected officials.
This last point is one that I have frequently emphasized to people over the years, namely that under the right circumstances, the real importance of a major political campaign sometimes has relatively little connection to the actual vote on election day. Instead, if used properly, a campaign can become a powerful focal point for large amounts of media coverage on under-examined issues. And such media coverage may have long-term consequences, win or lose.
The leading candidates were two Democrats, Attorney-General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, and with California having adopted a top-two open primary system, it seemed quite unlikely that there would even be a Republican name on the November ballot. I emphasized the extremely long-shot nature of my last-minute candidacy, but I also noted that in a year so unexpectedly dominated by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, anything was possible.
The media had not entirely forgotten my past political achievements in California and given the completely unknown Republicans currently in the race, my entrance received quite a bit more attention than I expected. As a consequence, a surprising statewide poll soon ranked me as the leading Republican candidate, though my 5% share of the primary vote still placed me 40 points behind “Undecided.”
Because of my standing in the polls, I was invited to participate in both of the major televised U.S. Senate debates over the next few weeks, and despite having been away from politics for many years, I think I performed very credibly against Kamala Harris and the other candidates, as can be seen from my clips below, or in the complete debates, provided in the links. I relished the opportunity to raise all sorts of issues normally avoided by major party candidates.
- California U.S. Senate Debate, Stockton, April 26, 2016 – Entire Debate, 83m
Kamala Harris, Loretta Sanchez, Ron Unz, Duf Sundheim, Tom Del Beccaro
- California U.S. Senate Debate, San Diego, May 10, 2016 – Entire Debate, 56m
Kamala Harris, Loretta Sanchez, Ron Unz, Duf Sundheim, Tom Del Beccaro
Meanwhile, I continued my efforts to attract media interest to our Harvard campaign. During my past initiatives, public debates had served as an excellent means of focusing attention on the issues, and I felt very confident that the extreme weakness of the arguments against us would easily be revealed in such a forum. Harvard’s official representatives had regularly disputed my claims in the Times article and other media stories, so for weeks I had repeatedly challenged them to a public debate on the matter, though without any success. But now that an official opposition group had emerged, I redoubled my suggestions to the Crimson reporters and our local supporters that Harvard should hold a debate, and the Chinese Students Association soon announced that they would sponsor one, inviting me to participate. I immediately accepted, although the date they selected would require me to take a red-eye flight following one of my California U.S. Senate debates.
It’s possible that Harvard had never previously held a public debate on the contentious issue of Asian Quotas or the closely-related topic of affirmative action, and with “diversity” being a watchword on campus, my opponents would obviously enjoy a huge home-field advantage, but that didn’t concern me in the least. Even a raucous, angry crowd overwhelmingly on the other side would serve my purposes by attracting the media coverage that constituted the life’s blood of our campaign. Unfortunately, the opposition apparently had similar thoughts because they refused to participate, then outrageously demanded that the debate be cancelled because it would be unfair for the audience to hear only one side of the issue, heavily pressuring the Chinese student group into withdrawing its sponsorship.
But a large Harvard lecture hall had already been reserved, I’d paid for my tickets and hotel room, and my materials were in transit to Cambridge. So I assisted a young Law School student in quickly rounding up a couple of other sponsoring organizations and local Harvard opponents, and the event went ahead as I afterwards explained.
While on campus, I was told by one student that if he published an op-ed in the Crimson critical of affirmative action, he would be subjected to a massive campaign of vilification and there would be widespread demands for his immediate expulsion. Hence our public debate on closely-related issues was almost unprecedented in Harvard’s current intellectual climate of fear. Regardless of whether you are a liberal or a conservative, I think this is an outrageous state of affairs at one of world’s most prestigious centers of higher education.
The debate produced a nice front-page story in the Crimson and a video of the event was loaded on Youtube, with one of my erstwhile opponents even changing his stance and supporting our proposal to abolish tuition as our position was fully explained.
- Free Harvard/Fair Harvard Debate, April 10, 2016
Ron Unz, Daniel J. Solomon, Luran J. He
I was quite pleased with the results, especially since I’d only gotten a couple of hours sleep on the red-eye flight out from California that had arrived earlier that morning. A few hours later I was back at the airport on my way home again, making this an exhausting but very productive East Coast trip.
A couple of days earlier, the Pacifica Radio Network, America’s leading leftwing media group, had broadcast my half hour discussion of our campaign with Ralph Nader, which was highly informative and also went very well:
Unfortunately, our increasing public profile had apparently drawn other determined foes, concerned by the very favorable media coverage we had been attracting. Just after my return from Harvard, an activist group began distributing an opposition-research dossier of harsh accusations against me, hoping to destroy my credibility with the media.
The main issues raised were that over the years I had provided financial support to extreme right-wing writers, intellectuals, and organizations, notably including Steve Sailer, Gregory Cochran, Tom Woods, and VDare.com., and the Crimson ran the story under the lurid headline “Overseers Candidate Donates to ‘Quasi-White Nationalist’ Group.”
I regarded the charges made against me as extremely distorted and misleading, and immediately provided a lengthy rebuttal:
I was very unhappy with the unfair and inflammatory article that the Harvard Crimson ran regarding my political associations, and they suggested I submit an op-ed in response. I provided the piece below, which they requested be trimmed for length prior to publication, which I did.
They then notified me that after further consideration, they had decided that most of my points were irrelevant or unfair and should not be published: I could only make the arguments that they themselves approved. Perhaps they felt that the effectiveness of my response might risk “confusing” some of their readers.
Several individuals have emphasized to me that outrageous character assassination based on guilt-by-association must be answered quickly, so here’s the rebuttal that the Crimson refused to publish, and you can decide for yourself if their decision was appropriate.
- My Stasi File Published in the Harvard Crimson
The Unz Review • April 17, 2016 • 1,400 Words
I think my response very effectively rebutted those allegations, and probably left the young Crimson reporters a little ashamed that their inexperience had led them to fall for such nonsense; perhaps as a consequence, they published a glowing account of Ralph Nader’s role in our campaign just a few days later. By contrast, those same accusations and distortions were ignored by the political reporters covering my U.S. Senate campaign in California, and never raised at my editorial board meetings nor in the televised debates, partly because my own positions on racial and ethnic issues had become so well known in my home state during the more than twenty years of my major political campaigns. Instead California’s very mainstream Zocolo Public Square organization soon solicited a short item from me presenting my zero tuition arguments.
But although these nasty smears soon mostly vanished from the media coverage of our Harvard campaign, I’m sure that they continued to circulate widely on Harvard Facebook pages.
Shortly before the close of voting, the national media finally began taking some notice of our effort, with Politico running a major article focusing on Nader’s involvement and the controversy over affirmative action at Harvard.
- Ralph Nader Declares War on Harvard
Josh Gerstein • Politico • May 19, 2016 • 2,500 Words
As many of you have probably already heard, our Free Harvard/Fair Harvard campaign for the Board of Overseers failed yesterday, with none of the five candidates on our slate being successful. The highly contentious nature of this year’s contest did boost the vote-by-mail turnout to 11%, considerably higher than the more usual 7%. But with nearly 90% of Harvard’s 320,000 throwing their ballots in the trash, lack of interest clearly won a gigantic landslide victory.
Given that no petition candidate had successfully won a seat on Harvard’s board in the 27 years since Nobel Laureate Archbishop Tutu of South Africa made the cut in 1989, with a young Barack Obama being among the numerous failures, I suppose I should have expected this result from the beginning. But I’d like to believe that if not for a certain loudmouthed Republican presidential candidate having grabbed such an astonishing share of the national media oxygen over the last six months, our bold proposal to completely abolish tuition at the world’s most prestigious college would have attracted far more attention, considerably reducing the trash-can vote, and perhaps giving us a shot at victory.
In any event, I do believe we vastly increased the number of Americans now aware that Harvard’s annual investment income is so massively disproportionate to its net tuition revenue, perhaps laying the basis for future changes along the lines we proposed. Among other straws in the wind, just a few weeks after our campaign reached the front page of The New York Times, a group of influential U.S. Senators began pressing Harvard and its peers to allocate a much larger fraction of their annual earnings to financial aid or lose their tax exemption, with a figure as high as 25% being bandied about.
Although to a layperson, it might hardly seem unreasonable for wealthy colleges such as Harvard to spend just a quarter of their income subsidizing the education of their undergraduates, in practice such a demand would force Harvard to abolish all tuition, abolish all room-and-board costs, and also provide each student a brand new Rolls-Royce automobile each year, a policy which would surely increase the number of annual applicants to even higher levels.
It would not totally surprise me if at some point, Harvard’s shrewd financial managers may decide that the 4% allocation we were suggesting seems a lot cheaper than the 25% demanded by Congress, and immediately abolish tuition with a sudden wave of their hands.
In another strange irony, disgraced former Harvard President Larry Summers ferociously denounced our “free tuition” proposal as a disgusting giveaway to the wealthy elites, whose unfair financial privileges he so strongly opposes. Surely, Hillary Clinton should begin using a similar line of attack against her notoriously pro-Oligarchic opponent Bernie Sanders, who has proposed something very similar.
In the past, Summers has been somewhat less hesitant in assisting the rich, such as when he used $26.5 million of Harvard funds to settle a government insider-trading case against one of his closest friends, who thereby perhaps avoided a long prison sentence as a result. This was one of the major factors leading to a massive faculty revolt against Summers and his forced resignation as Harvard president, an event probably without precedent in Harvard history. Although personal friendship is surely priceless, Summers must have realized he was risking his presidency over that decision, and I’ve always half-suspected that he’d himself been a silent partner in that insider-trading ring, and was therefore blackmailed into using tens of millions in Harvard’s endowment money to save his friend from the slammer lest he end up wearing pinstripes himself.
Despite all our efforts—and those of our vigorous opponents—the pitiful turnout of just 11% demonstrated just how little awareness the campaign had generated within the Harvard alumni community. Moreover, indifferent or uninterested voters would be expected to select the names listed closer to the top of the ballot, and four of the five winners came from that group, a result apparently similar to that of most previous years. Meanwhile, all petition candidates were grouped at the bottom, and we discovered that the votes the five of us had individually received exactly corresponded to the order in which our names were listed. So all our efforts, our dramatic proposals, and our carefully crafted ballot-statements had had almost no impact, and we had lost for the same reasons that every other petition candidate for the previous 27 years had lost.
Despite the energetic campaign on Facebook by the hundreds of activists in our “diversity” opposition, they didn’t do much better. Although some of their endorsed candidates won, their success rate was almost exactly what would have been produced by random chance.
I was somewhat surprised by these results, but I probably should not have been. Perhaps ten or twenty thousand of the alumni voters came from families currently paying up to $180,000 in Harvard undergraduate tuition or believing that they might have to do so in the near future. My assumption had been that the prospect of such enormous financial savings would ensure our victory, but in hindsight I think I understand why this did not happen.
Although grounded in solid reality, our proposal must have seemed entirely fantastical to Harvard alumni who encountered it for the first time, and almost none of them would have believed it was real. Aside from the original Times article several months earlier, our media coverage had been minimal, so probably only a sliver of the alumni had heard of our proposal—either positively or negatively—until they glanced at their Overseer ballots, and they would have dismissed the claims we made in our ballot arguments as total nonsense, little different than the bizarre rantings of a street-corner agitator. But if the media had extensively covered and validated our issue, suggesting that a few simple checkmarks on a piece of paper might indeed save their families a six-figure sum, we surely would have gotten their votes. The media creates Reality, and without the necessary media validation, our project wasn’t “real” in the minds of the alumni voters who encountered it.
As with many other political campaigns, the unpredictable uncertainties of the media landscape had doomed our effort. If the tone of the original Times article had been friendlier or if Donald Trump had not suddenly erupted into the presidential race, absorbing so much political attention, the greatly increased coverage of our campaign might have easily changed the outcome.
Having successfully seen off our unexpected challenge, the Harvard administration soon took defensive steps to prevent any recurrence. Our effort had been made possible because petition candidates required only some 200 alumni signatures to be placed on the ballot, and later that year Harvard raised the requirement more than ten-fold to 2,650, while modernizing the petitioning process. Also, henceforth only holders of a Harvard degree would be eligible as candidates, thus preventing the participation of prominent celebrities such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had headed the successful anti-Apartheid slate of 1987.
However, to Harvard’s considerable surprise, in 2020 a group of climate change activists successfully organized a petition drive to have their names placed on the ballot, with the five candidates running on a platform of having the Harvard endowment divest from all holdings related to fossil fuels. They conducted a very vigorous campaign on social media, and despite the opposition of Harvard’s administration, three of their candidates were elected.
But their efforts had received almost no attention until after their unexpected victory, and even that consisted of merely a small item buried on p. A-22 of the New York Times, with no indications that their proposals would be carried out. Harvard also soon limited the number of petition candidates to just six of the 30 seats on the Board of Overseers, largely closing the door to any such future campaigns.
Meanwhile, Harvard’s enormous endowment has continued to grow, recently exceeding $53 billion, an amount more than 40% larger than the 2015 figure we had emphasized. Whereas the university’s investment income had averaged about 25 times larger than its undergraduate tuition revenue during the years leading up to our campaign, last year’s figure was around 75 times larger. Back then, the combined endowments of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford exceeded $100 billion, while today the total is approaching $200 billion.
The absurdities of America’s tax-exempt, tuition-charging hedge-funds have grown steadily more extreme. But with so many powerful political figures and wealthy political donors eager to have Harvard and its top peers look favorably upon the applications of their family members or relatives, no changes in government policy seem likely in the foreseeable future.