Education

A push to make Harvard free also questions the role of race in admissions

Ron Unz, a conservative advocate, put together the slate of five candidates for the Board of Overseers at Harvard that is asking if the university ought to be tuition-free for undergraduates. Jim Wilson / The New York Times

Should Harvard be free?

That is the provocative question posed by an outsider slate of candidates running for the Board of Overseers at Harvard, which helps set strategy for the university. They say Harvard makes so much money from its $37.6 billion endowment that it should stop charging tuition to undergraduates.

But they have tied the notion to another equally provocative question: Does Harvard shortchange Asian-American applicants in admissions?

The slate of five candidates was put together by Ron Unz, a conservative from California and software entrepreneur who sponsored ballots initiatives opposing bilingual education. Although the campaign, “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard,’’ includes one left-leaning member — consumer advocate Ralph Nader — Unz and the other three candidates have written or testified extensively against affirmative action, opposing race-based admissions.

Their positions are in lock step with accusations in a federal lawsuit accusing the university of discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions. Harvard has denied the allegations.

Coincidence or not, the plaintiffs in that case are seeking from Harvard exactly what the slate of candidates wants: disclosure of data showing how the university’s freshman class is selected each year.

The politically charged data holds the potential to reveal whether Harvard bypasses better-qualified Asian-American candidates in favor of whites, blacks and Hispanics, and the children of the wealthy and powerful, the group argues.

“Our focus is entirely on greater transparency in admissions,’’ Unz said, “namely urging Harvard to provide much more detailed information on how they select the very small slice of applicants receiving offers of admission, in order to curb the huge potential abuse possible under the entirely opaque system.’’

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Whatever the political motivations of the slate, Unz and the other members have hit on two increasingly contentious issues in higher education: astronomical college costs and affirmative action.

The ballooning expense of college has become a hot topic in the presidential race, with several candidates proposing solutions ranging from government-financed tuition to the idea that private investors could finance college expenses in exchange for a share of an individual’s future earnings. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed an idea similar to the one held by Unz’s slate — that college endowments should be tapped to cover tuition.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether race should be used as a factor in college admissions. As so-called underrepresented minorities — blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans — get a boost at Harvard and many other colleges, Asian-Americans are among those who say they lose out.

Unz and his group argue that the two issues are related. They say that once word spreads about a free Harvard education, the number of highly qualified candidates from all backgrounds will spike, and the university will no longer have trouble balancing its class for racial or ethnic diversity.

And if Harvard abolishes tuition for undergrads, Nader said, “It will ricochet across the Ivy League.’’

Maybe. Officials at Harvard suggested that even if the slate were to win, the idea is a nonstarter, pointing out that the endowment is split into thousands of funds designated for specific uses that have nothing to do with undergraduates.

“There is a common misconception that endowments, including Harvard’s, can be accessed like bank accounts, used for anything at any time as long as funds are available,’’ Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesman, said. “In reality, Harvard’s flexibility in spending from the endowment is limited by the fact that it must be maintained in perpetuity and that it is largely restricted by the explicit wishes of those who contributed the endowed funds.’’

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Neal also said that although tuition is high, Harvard, like many universities with large endowments, is generous with financial aid, awarding more than $1.4 billion to undergraduates in the past decade.

But Unz believes that even with the potential aid, prospective low-income applicants may be discouraged by the published tuition of $45,000 a year.

The idea of free tuition paid for by endowment income has also gained traction in Congress. College endowments held $516 billion in 2014, with 74 percent of the money held by 11 percent of institutions, according to a Congressional Research Service report in December. The average return in 2014 was 15.5 percent, the report said, but the colleges spent only 4.4 percent. By law, those are tax-exempt earnings.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed requiring that about 90 colleges with endowments of $1 billion or more spend about 25 percent of their annual earnings for tuition assistance — or forfeit their tax exemptions. Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., said the plan would partly address a crisis in college costs for low- and middle-income families.

At universities like Harvard with large endowments, Reed said, “If my math is correct, that would essentially wipe out any tuition bill that a child would be responsible for.’’

Unz, whose 2012 data analysis of admissions at Harvard and other Ivy League institutions is cited in the case against the university, said his slate was not pressing to abolish affirmative action at Harvard, it was seeking only to get more information. But several members of the group are known for their past advocacy against using race in admissions.

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One is Lee C. Cheng, chief legal counsel for online electronics retailer Newegg.com, who is co-founder of an organization that filed a brief in support of the white plaintiff in the lawsuit against the University of Texas that is before the Supreme Court. Cheng is also quoted in the suit against Harvard, which was brought by Students for Fair Admissions.

Another member of the slate is Stuart Taylor Jr., a former reporter for The New York Times who is co-author of a 2012 book contending that affirmative action harms minority students. And another is Stephen Hsu, a physicist and vice president at Michigan State University who has written against the use of race in college admissions.

Nader, who got his law degree from Harvard, said the admissions system has been “bollixed up for decades’’ by legacies and other preferences.

In court documents filed in the Fisher case, Harvard says a victory for the plaintiffs in the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit would overturn its efforts to build a racially diverse class.

The Board of Overseers, with 30 members elected for rotating six-year terms, is the second most powerful board at the university. Members are generally elected from nominees selected by the Harvard Alumni Association.

To be placed on the ballot, other candidates must get petitions signed this month by 201 Harvard alumni.

Unz, who these days is busy collecting signatures, believes his group stands a good chance. Part of his strategy apparently relies on low turnout among the 320,000 or so alumni, combined with the hope that an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Asian-American graduates will be energized by the “Fair Harvard’’ plank.

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This is not the first time a slate of candidates has tried to influence the board. In 1991, a Harvard Law School student named Barack Obama was one of three candidates running on a slate called the Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid.

It lost.

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