Who ‘Deserves’ to Go to Harvard

An opinion piece from the WSJ on a Harvard dean’s speech to graduates.

It’s college graduation season, when high-profile commencement speakers are scrutinized as barometers of academia’s ideological leanings. A speech by Harvard College’s dean this year suggests you learn more when a school bureaucrat articulates the worldview that shapes campus culture than when a celebrity jets in, collects an honorarium and leaves.


Harvard certainly believes this. And if Dean Khurana were being fully honest about it, he would have said that, in fact, from Harvard’s perspective, there are many more applicants to Harvard with attractive characteristics than can be admitted, and the idea that anyone “deserves” to go to Harvard is misplaced, for more complex reasons than those he cited.

Harvard, a private university that constantly seeks to do more and more of what it does (teaching and research), and expand its reach and power as much as it can, admits - as is its right - about 2,000 students to Harvard College every year in the belief that this is the group best-placed to help Harvard achieve these goals by virtue of each individual’s attributes, which may include brilliance, special talent such as the ability to throw a ball well, your family’s wealth, the state in which you reside, your racial/ethnic background and a thousand other things.

Just because you’re “qualified” to go to Harvard (which means you’d be able to graduate) doesn’t mean you “deserve” to be admitted. If Harvard offered you a spot, you “deserve” it, insofar as the term is applicable. If they didn’t, you don’t (even if Harvard made a mistake and it would have been better for them to have admitted you than someone else who got a spot).

Dean Khurana fully understands this, of course, but can’t say it out loud. It suits him to throw it back on the students and tell them, in effect, to check their privilege, rather than acknowledge his important role in perpetuating a system that anoints ~2,000 kids each year for the purpose of advancing the institutional goals of Harvard. It’s worth noting that even though those goals produce positive effects by increasing human knowledge and promoting teaching, they also benefit Harvard and its stakeholders monetarily and otherwise.

Instead of telling these students that a lot of what they’ve achieved is due to luck and they should be more humble, and leaving it at that, it might have been instructive for Dean Khurana to add that he, and Harvard, are also very fortunate for many reasons, including the ability to pick and choose each year the group of students that will be most useful as tools to make him and Harvard, the richest and most powerful university in the world, even richer and more powerful.

I wish I could access the article. The students I know who went to Harvard certainly “deserved it” as did, no doubt, many who didn’t go there.

Well, that’s simple, more athletes, URMs and prep school wealthy deserve to go to Harvard than middle class Asians scholars. In some cases, privilege gets you in, in other its held against you. There is no rhyme or reason to it just misguided attempt at social engineering.

Again, Harvard is a private institution, and honestly, the only people who we can say “deserve” to go there in any way or manner, are the kids whose super-wealthy parents donated millions to the university for that purpose. Kids who go to Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton, or any one of the selective private colleges out there, do so because the college selected them.

Acceptance to a selective college is not a prize that a kid gets for doing well in high school. Admission to a selective private college is not an inalienable right of every high school graduate who has high grades and high SAT scores.

Everybody deserves to be accepted to Harvard as much as everybody else, because nobody actually “deserves” to go to a private college. Harvard university does not “owe” acceptance to any applicant out there for any reason.

@Riversider Out of interest, why do you use the term “scholars” only for middle class Asian high school graduates? Why don’t you consider URM applicants to be “scholars”?

1 Like

@MWolf did you read the article? This is more a commentary (and a scathing rebuke) to the speech that the Dean gave to students of Harvard’s graduating class, not really on who “deserves” to go to Harvard.

@MWolf It’s not about one group not having any scholars or other group having 100% scholars. Statistically more applicants from Asian applicant pool have stronger academic profiles, higher achievements and average/median stats are much higher.

@MWolf and I are engaging with the speech that the article discusses, and criticizing it from a different angle than the article.

What’s misguided, in my opinion, is for someone to think they know better than Harvard who Harvard should admit. Harvard devotes very substantial resources to identifying, admitting and subsidizing the enrollment of the ~2,000 students each year that it believes best serves its interests. Those interests - fulfilling Harvard’s mission of teaching and research by expanding Harvard’s power, reach and wealth - are much more important to Harvard than any “social engineering” (a concept I only see talked about in certain corners of Reddit and College Confidential). If Harvard believed its interests would be best served by admitting only “middle class Asians [sic] scholars”, that’s who Harvard would admit.

There is certainly “rhyme or reason” to Harvard’s admissions process, which it’s pretty straightforward to determine if you look carefully enough (various people on CC understand it to a greater or lesser degree, for example).

^^^ Exactly. I would only make one correction. Instead of “fulfilling Harvard’s mission of teaching and research BY expanding Harvard’s power, reach and wealth”, I would write “fulfilling Harvard’s mission of teaching and research AND expanding Harvard’s power, reach, and wealth”.

Of course, nobody “deserves” to be admitted to Harvard or other private colleges. But is that a coincidence that Trump’s son in law and Xi’s daughter were among the 1600 kids of Harvard class? Harvard uses its unique position to pick a class that serves its needs. At least 50% of seats are reserved for “the entitled”. One of this year’s class commencement speakers Al Gore only applied to one college when he was a HS senior, Harvard.

And it didn’t help the message when these kids can pick whoever celebrities they feel like inviting and get them to show up for commencement address too.

Two kids of wealthy and powerful families proves nothing.

“Statistically more applicants from Asian applicant pool have stronger academic profiles, higher achievements and average/median stats are much higher.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s more than stats and higher achievements. You make this sound hierarchical, when it’s holistic. And, includes institutional needs like balancing geo areas and majors.

Is this thread really about Asian Americans?

Gore entered over 50 years ago. Things were different.

1 Like

It’s not a coincidence at all - the donations/importance of their families dominated the holistic picture, and they were judged able to do the work, so they got in. It’s similar for a recruited athlete. And there’s no right or wrong to it - it’s just business, Harvard’s business. They’ve been admitting students for nearly 400 years, and they believe the collection of individuals they admit each year is the best they can get in order to satisfy many different institutional needs (apart from having a certain number of geniuses, these include funding, access and beating Yale at football, among lots of others).

Those institutional needs can change over time, as society and the law change, but at any given point in time, Harvard has a view as to which kids will deliver the most advantages for Harvard, and that’s who gets in.

The article isn’t so much about who deserves to go as a commentary on the points the Dean consciously or unconsciously chose to omit when lecturing the students on why they didn’t get where they are today (Harvard graduates) all by themselves…but mostly because of privilege and chance. His speech isn’t included in the article so there is likely a fair bit of cherry picking to support the author’s perspective.