There exists a species of person — typically a well-groomed overachiever — who, when asked where he or she went to college, rather than state its name directly, will provide a Russian nesting doll set of geographical responses.
In New England. Massachusetts. Well, Boston. Um … Cambridge.
Finally, sotto voce, with an apologetic wince or sheepish smile, anticipating the word’s being volleyed back in an affected Boston Brahmin accent: Harvard.
For decades, circumspect students and alumni of the nation’s oldest university have played “this unbearable little game,” said William Deresiewicz, author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life.” “They’re coy, because they don’t want to destroy our egos, but they can’t wait for the moment they drop the ‘H-bomb.’”
This coyness may be no crime, but a genuine wish not to appear bigheaded for their association with an institution that is shorthand for the acme of academe. No matter Harvard’s perch in that year’s rankings in U.S. News & World Report (currently No. 2, after Princeton), it remains peerless in global cachet. It is the university boasting the most presidents among its graduates (eight, including the law and business schools), and the one that, despite prohibitions against on-campus filming, is cast in movies and TV shows, for every genre from love stories to law-school comedies, to italicize its characters’ intellects and — how do you like them apples? — elite status.
Yet after several incidents that have besmirched the university’s reputation, and in an era of heightened self-consciousness over privilege, that formerly contrived embarrassment may be ceding to sincere shame and a reassessment of the merits of a Harvard education.
The university has been in the news quite a bit lately. Its gargantuan $35.7 billion endowment, the largest in the country by far, was cited in articles about dining-hall workers who went on a successful three-week strike for a salary increase to $35,000 per year. The school canceled the men’s soccer team’s season after the discovery of a 2012 “scouting report” in which team members rated the sexual appeal of individuals on the women’s team; the men’s cross-country team was just placed on athletic probation for doing the same thing in 2014.
Also, Harvard had the sixth-most-reported rape cases on campus in 2014, and its law school figured prominently in the controversial documentary about campus sexual assault, “The Hunting Ground.” Students in all-male final clubs, Harvard’s long-standing and exclusive version of fraternities, will now be penalized for their membership (as will members of female final clubs).
The brand has also had an unexpected collision with that of the incoming presidential administration. Stephen K. Bannon, Donald J. Trump’s chief strategist and the former executive chair of Breitbart News, is a 1985 graduate of Harvard Business School. More than 600 female students and alumnae signed a letter to The New York Times denouncing his selection by Trump, accusing him of engineering “a movement that preaches white nationalism, racism, misogyny and hatred.” Bannon dropped out of a postelection event at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, perhaps because of a planned large protest.
Daniel Golden’s 2006 book, “The Price of Admission,” about how the rich buy their way into elite schools, has become newly relevant for its disclosure that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, received acceptance to Harvard despite an unremarkable academic record, possibly thanks to his father’s donation of $2.5 million. (A spokeswoman for Kushner denied the allegation, noting that Kushner graduated with honors; Golden observed that, in a climate of rampant grade inflation, so did about 90 percent of Kushner’s graduating class of 2003.)
Beyond the unsavory headlines and questionable associations, swelling populist resentment for bastions of exclusivity and obscene wealth — from many of Trump’s supporters and critics alike — may inspire alumni of Harvard, and similarly elite schools, to be even less conspicuous about where they received their degrees.
Though Calvin Klein’s representatives were unable to confirm it, I remember the designer, who attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, photographed wearing a Harvard-logo T-shirt in the greed-is-good ‘80s. (Gordon Gekko, the villain of the 1987 film “Wall Street,” held “Harvard MBA-types” in contempt.) The continued American thirst for luxury brands notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a mass-market designer appropriating the aura of a $60,000-a-year Ivy League school in a time of bitter red-state scorn for East Coast snobbery.
Along with members of Trump’s inner circle, some of Harvard’s most notable recent students include Mark Zuckerberg, recently under fire for the dissemination of fake news on Facebook, and an annually replenishing army of aspiring Gekkos who are routinely blamed, accurately or not, for the country’s economic inequality and crises. (The acquisitive-rather-than-inquisitive Harvard graduate is not a baseless stereotype: Nearly two-fifths of the class of 2016 said they were going into finance or consulting, with an additional 14 percent heading into technology. By comparison, just 6 percent went into nonprofit or public service work, and 4 percent into education.)
The rose-garden perfume of privilege — as charged a word as can be found on campuses these days — emanating from anyone with a Harvard diploma receives more censure now than ever, whether that privilege came in the form of significant parental help in gaining admission or was acquired at the school and now opens endless doors.
In fairness to Harvard, it asks no contribution from families making less than $65,000 per year and provides sliding-scale tuition for those earning more. The New York Times 2015 College Access Index, measuring schools’ efforts to promote economic diversity, ranked it 11th over all and fourth among private colleges, far ahead of places better known for their diversity, such as Oberlin (ranked 132nd). However, its ratio of federal Pell Grant recipients (for low-income students) to endowment per student is much less impressive.
Harvard remains flush with children of the rich. According to a survey of the current freshman class, over a third of the student body comes from families earning more than $250,000 a year (the wealthiest 4 percent of households), with more students from the $500,000-and-up 1 percenters than $40,000-and-below families. These demographics are similar to those found at other selective colleges, as is Harvard’s discrepancy between its stated commitment to economic diversity and whom it accepts. A 2005 book, “Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education,” determined that, all else being equal, top schools do not offer any admission advantage to low-income students, despite lip service to the contrary.
Yet the number of Harvard applications has soared the past three years, now at a record high, with 34 percent more for the class of 2020 than for 2013. Some parents, though, including alumni, are rebelling against the Harvard-or-bust mentality, not only because of the stresses it places on their overworked children, but from misgivings about the conformist and careerist atmosphere of the Ivy Leagues.
“I would like my kids to find their passion, take risks and be curious, engaged, educated people,” said Joshua Henkin, the director of the graduate program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College and a 1987 graduate of Harvard. “Elite schools discourage kids from being that; they want them to build résumés, to build careers, to be cautious. The kinds of people who go to Harvard tend to be people who succeed by traditional metrics, and that continues after Harvard. I’d like my kids not to be so beholden to those metrics.”
Henkin acknowledged that “only privileged people” like himself “can afford not to be concerned” about the attainment of privilege. This year’s “Captain Fantastic,” a movie about an anti-capitalist father home schooling six children in the wilderness, reflects this bohemian fantasy; the eldest son’s clandestine application to Harvard and other top colleges is a major plotline.
Deresiewicz said that as he talks at colleges and high schools around the country, he encounters more students who question whether going to a prestigious school “is something that’s really going to make me happy and lead to a fulfilling life.”
“But there’s a feeling like you don’t have a choice” in an increasingly aristocratic society in which one’s college is a primary determinant of status, he added. “I don’t think a lot of them are doing this happily. The people who say that are still at those institutions. There are a lot of psychological mechanisms for people there to distance themselves from their privilege.”
Nick F. Barber, a current senior, wrote in 2014 in The Harvard Crimson, the daily student newspaper, that “privilege — and more importantly what privilege says about each of our characters — makes us uncomfortable. Our privilege forces us to question our worthiness and our merit, two of the things most highly valued at an institution like this one.”
While there are many Harvard students like Barber grappling with these issues, it is not hard to find others on campus less tormented by Harvard’s ivory-tower exclusivity.
In 2013, I traveled to the school, from which I had graduated a dozen years earlier, for an event I took part in.
I also intended to do research for my novel “Loner,” about a Harvard freshman not prone to checking his privilege, who, in his ruthlessly amoral, Tom Ripley-like desire to ascend the college’s social ladder, develops an infatuation with a rich female classmate. Writing it was likely my own elaborate psychological mechanism of privilege-distancing. (It did not sit well with The Crimson, which gave it a scorched-earth review with this rather clinical summation: “Really liking this book seems inherently pathological, and I would not wish the experience of reading it upon anyone.”)
After the event, I walked past a final club party in progress at a stately brick building. For research purposes, I wanted to refresh my dim memories of such gatherings, but, as a man they didn’t know, I wouldn’t be allowed in on my own. I lingered near the entrance until three female students rang the doorbell, and tried to ingratiate myself with them. Oddly, they were less than receptive to a thirty-something stranger’s late-night attempt to use them as a Trojan horse for a college party. When a club member greeted them with kisses on the cheek and looked at me next, one of the young women issued her verdict while strolling inside.
“Don’t let him in,” she said before he closed the door on me. “He’s weird.”