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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Defining Merit

What should be the goals and responsibilities of a great university? Should it strive to maximize the future contributions of its graduates to humanity? Or should the university define its interests more narrowly, in terms of institutional prestige, social cachet and financial wealth?

Below are more excerpts from Jerome Karabel's The Chosen, an in-depth analysis of admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the 20th century. All of the excerpts are from Chapter 9: Wilbur Bender and his Legacy, which chronicles the late 1950's confrontation between elements of the Harvard faculty (often idealistic scientists), who wanted to place more emphasis on intellectual merit, and then Dean of Admissions Wilbur Bender, who was more narrowly focused on Harvard's institutional priorities. (If you find this post interesting, I highly recommend a look at the book. At the Google link above all of Chapter 9 is available.)

Although Karabel does an excellent job (see below) of characterizing the two sides of the argument, he does not examine the conflict in fundamental values between the scholar-scientists and Bender: the best and brightest for their future contributions to mankind, or the best for Harvard's future as an institution? To prepare "leaders" who will pursue power (some of which shall accrue, indirectly, to Harvard) or to prepare scientists and scholars who will create knowledge to be shared by all?

See also this earlier post: Creators vs Rulers.

... Brinton, a former Rhodes Scholar with a broad historic and comparative perspective on higher education, posed a sharp question to clarify the issue at hand: "Do we want an Ecole Normale Superieure, a 'cerebral school' aimed solely at preparing students for the academic professions?" Bender's answer was a resounding no. But to Wilson the matter was not so clear: the basic issue was which students "could take advantage of the unique intellectual opportunity which Harvard has to offer." In a barb clearly aimed at Bender, Wilson proclaimed that "he just did not accept potential financial return ... as the basis for showing favoritism to Harvard sons who were less well qualified academically than other admission candidates."

Having been under assault by segments of the faculty for almost two years, at first by Holton, then by Kistiakowsky, and now by Wilson, Bender apparently decided that he had had enough. In a meeting of the committee a month after this testy exchange, he announced his resignation as dean of Admissions and Financial Aids, and stated that he would prefer neither to affix his signature to the final report of the subcommittee nor to withhold his vote of approval. His departure was set for July 1, 1960, and he agreed to continue to meet with the subcommittee until it completed its mission.

It is interesting that Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) features so prominently in Harvard's internal discussions. Along with Ecole Polytechnique, ENS is at the pinnacle of the strictly meritocratic French system of higher education. (See earlier post: Les Grandes Ecoles.)

The University of Chicago is an example of a school that followed the rigorous, meritocratic path, and suffered a consequential decline in social cachet and financial standing. Idealism damaged Chicago's position in the competition against Harvard and others. As one realistic Harvard commenter noted, one needs to "admit the bottom 10 percent to continue to attract the top 10 percent" -- even the intelligentsia value the social cachet of their alma mater.

... In a pair of letters that constituted something of a manifesto for the wing of the faculty favoring strict academic meritocracy, Wilson explicitly advocated admitting fewer private school students and commuters, eliminating all preferences for athletes, and (if funds permitted) selecting "the entering class regardless of financial need on the basis of pure merit." The issue of athletes particularly vexed Wilson, who stated flatly: "I would certainly rule out athletic ability as a criterion for admission of any sort," adding that "it bears a zero relationship to the performance later in life that we are trying to predict." He also argued that "it may well be that objective test scores are our only safeguards against an excessive number of athletes only, rich playboys, smooth characters who make a good impression in interviews, etc." As a parting shot, Wilson could not resist accusing Ford of anti-intellectualism; citing Ford's desire to change Harvard's image, Wilson asked bluntly: "What's wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college? Isn't it right that a country the size of the United States should be able to afford one university in which intellectual achievement is the most important consideration?"

E. Bright Wilson was professor of chemistry and member of the National Academy of Sciences, later a recipient of the National Medal of Science. The last quote from Wilson could easily have come from anyone who went to Caltech! Indeed, both E. Bright Wilson and his son, Nobel Laureate Ken Wilson (theoretical physics), earned their doctorates at Caltech (the father under Linus Pauling, the son under Murray Gell-Mann).

For Bender, who loved Harvard, and had devoted much of his life to it ... "whether our eventual goal for Harvard is an American Ecole Normale, or the nearest approach to it we can get." In Bender's reading, "it is implied, but not directly stated" that Harvard should emulate this model, which admits students purely on the basis of their performance on an exam and serves as a training ground for many of France's leading academics and intellectuals. Professors, in particular, were especially prone to take this view: "My guess is that many, perhaps most, of the faculty would support such a policy, and many would assume that the case for it was obvious and irrefutable."

To Bender, however, the vision of a freshman class selected solely on the basis of academic criteria was nightmarish. "Would we have a dangerously high incidence of emotional problems, of breakdowns and suicides? Would we get a high proportion of rather precious, brittle types, intellectuals in quotes, beatniks, etc.?" "Do we really want," he continued, "a college in which practically everyone was headed for a career as a scholar, scientist, college teacher or research doctor?"

For his purposes -- the narrow institutional interests of Harvard -- Bender was absolutely right. Filtering purely by intellectual merit (as opposed to using a broader set of criteria, and several categories under which students are admitted) would not maximize Harvard's influence in government or business, or its financial wealth. Again see earlier post: Creators vs Rulers.

Bender also had a startlingly accurate sense of how many truly intellectually outstanding students were available in the national pool. He doubted whether more than 100-200 candidates of truly exceptional promise would be available for each year's class. This number corresponds to (roughly) +4 SD in mental ability. Long after Bender resigned, Harvard still reserved only 10 percent of its places (roughly 150 spots) for "top brains". (See category "S" listed at bottom.)

... To test his hypothesis that Harvard's most brilliant students were not its most "distinguished graduates," he [Bender] carried out his own study of exceptionally successful alumni.

The twenty-six men studied were a veritable Who's Who of the American elite: among them was a former secretary of defense, the president of Commonwealth Edison and Electric Bond and Share, the publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, the senior partner of Davis Polk, and (not least) the general chairman of the Program for Harvard College. Twenty-two were private school graduates, with St. Paul's (four) and Groton (three) leading a list of the nation's most elite boarding schools. These men had not compiled particularly distinguished academic records at Harvard; the majority of them had relatively poor grades. A casual inspection suggested "a much higher than average participation by the above in athletic and other extracurricular activities" precisely the kinds of students likely to be excluded by the Ecole Normale model.

Harvard much prefers that its graduates ascend to positions of power, as opposed to graduates of Stanford or Berkeley. But do the differences between these schools have any effect on the actual quality of leadership? Does it matter to the Nation? Whose interests are at stake?

Bender, above all, loved Harvard. Professors like E. Bright Wilson were, for better or worse, much more idealistic: looking far beyond their home institution, they held knowledge itself preeminent.


Typology used for all applicants, at least as late as 1988:

1. S First-rate scholar in Harvard departmental terms.

2. D Candidate's primary strength is his academic strength, but it doesn't look strong enough to quality as an S (above).

3. A All-Amercan‚ healthy, uncomplicated athletic strengths and style, perhaps some extracurricular participation, but not combined with top academic credentials.

4. W Mr. School‚ significant extracurricular and perhaps (but not necessarily) athletic participation plus excellent academic record.

5. X Cross-country style‚ steady man who plugs and plugs and plugs, won't quit when most others would. Gets results largely through stamina and consistent effort.

6. P PBH [Phillips Brooks House] style: in activities and personal concerns.

7. C Creative in music, art, writing.

8. B Boondocker‚ unsophisticated rural background.

9. T Taconic, culturally depressed background, low income.

10. K Krunch‚ main strength is athletic, prospective varsity athlete. [ Sometimes also "H Horse" :-) ]

11. L Lineage‚ candidate probably couldn't be admitted without the extra plus of being a Harvard son, a faculty son, or a local boy with ties to the university community.

12. O Other‚ use when none of the above are applicable.

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