A shameful quota

How did admission departments 50 years ago think about the thousands of applications from accomplished Jewish high school students? At Yale, the attitude was “Well, we could fill all of Yale with them [Jews]. But we can’t, of course.” Harvard enforced a rigid quota. Williams, with its rural location and high price-tag, was probably less guilty than most of its peers, but was still reported to have restricted Jewish enrollment to less than 5 percent of each class. Perhaps the single most openly bigoted admission officer of note during this era was Princeton Director of Admission Radcliffe Heermance, Williams Class of 1904. Read Jerome Karabel’s masterful “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” for a detailed history.

But surely, one would hope, those days are long gone. The good men and women who run Williams today, our trustees and senior administrators, would never discriminate against another group of applicants in the same way that Heermance and his ilk did against the Jews, right? Think again. Williams today favors U.S.-resident applicants just the way that Williams yesterday favored Christians.

The bias here is not one of tie-breakers or all-else-equal. The College enforces a rigid numerical quota of 6 percent (maximum) for international students. After the best 30 or so international applicants are admitted (with allowances made for those who will choose to go elsewhere), all other would-be Ephs are rejected. It does not matter if the best few dozen of these rejected applicants have amazing test scores, superb high school records, extensive participation in other activities and enviable records of public service. Even if they belong in the top 10 percent of the entire pool (and, often enough, they do), they will be rejected. Williams has no place for them, lest there be “too many” non-U.S. residents on campus.

Although raw data is hard to come by, it seems clear that Williams today discriminates more against international applicants than Harvard discriminated against Jews in the 1920s.

Amazingly, the arguments used today in defense of this policy are virtually identical to those used 80 years ago. For example, Jim Kolesar, director of public affairs, claims that “a college that gave itself over to educating mainly international students, which is eventually what would happen given the numbers, would have a significantly different mission, very different standing with U.S. prospective students, and greatly altered relationship with government, donors, etc.”

These were exactly the fears expressed by men concerned about the prospect of “too many” Jews. The historical mission of elite colleges was not to educate everyone. The mission was to educate Christians. Many honest and thoughtful men worried that donors and alumni would be less likely to support a college with “too many” students that were unlike them and theirs. Talented Christian applicants would want to go elsewhere. Alumni would be less generous.

Were those fears reasonable? Perhaps. Yet it seems clear that discrimination was not necessary, that letting in many Jews (and African-Americans and Asian-Americans and, finally, women) did not meaningfully decrease alumni donations or applicant interest. Few alumni would be less munificent if Williams were 25 percent international. Few potential applicants would be dissuaded. Moreover, the College does not need donations from bigoted alumni and should not be interested in xenophobic applicants. The true sons and daughters of Mark Hopkins care about your intellect and interests, your discipline and enthusiasm. Your passport is irrelevant.

What is the solution? No sensible person recommends radical change. Start with small steps. First, select the best candidates from the waitlist to fill out the Class of 2010. Odds are that the vast majority of these will be international students. Second, increase the quota to 10 percent for the Class of 2011. If Harvard is 9 percent international, why is Williams 6 percent? Third, President Schapiro should appoint a committee of students, faculty and alumni to study the issue and report to the community. The 2002 ad hoc faculty committee on athletics provides a useful model. With more data and analysis, we will all have a better sense of what the policy should be.

Of course, to get this process started, what we really need is a student group to agitate for change. Perhaps EAIQ: Ephs Against International Quotas. Those who don’t fight against international quotas now will seem as benighted in the eyes of our children as the Jew-baiters of 1920 appear to us today.

David Kane ’88 resides in the Boston area.