When Harvard University admitted several applicants tied to influential donors in 2013, including one who had promised to pay for a building, the Kennedy School dean fired off an e-mail calling the head of admissions “my hero.”
“Once again you have done wonders. I am simply thrilled by all the folks you were able to admit,” David T. Ellwood, who then headed up the university’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote to William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions.
Ellwood lauded Fitzsimmons on “big wins,” including applicants connected to an unnamed donor who “has already committed to a building,” and two others who had “committed major money for fellowships before the decision from you.”
The congratulatory e-mail exchange between university administrators was among several internal documents presented on Wednesday in the trial over Harvard’s admissions practices.
While the case in Boston federal district court centers on whether Harvard’s admissions process hurts Asian-American applicants, it has also highlighted the advantages enjoyed primarily by white applicants. And the trial has offered a rare glimpse into how wealth and longstanding connections, sometimes built over generations, play into admissions at the country’s oldest and richest university, known for educating presidents and power players.
“A white admissions advantage is a problem,” said Genevieve Bonadies Torres, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing several minority students who will testify later this month in support of race-conscious admissions at Harvard.
The university has increased its diversity over the years, Bonadies Torres said. But about a third of last year’s incoming freshman class had parents who attended Harvard, according to a survey by the student newspaper, and a vast majority of those students are white.
Over a six-year period, Harvard admitted almost 2,680 white students who were athletes, connected to a donor, a child of a graduate or staff member, according to documents presented in the lawsuit. That’s more than all Asian students admitted during that period (2,460) and slightly less than all the black and Latino students combined (2,693).
“We’re talking about a longstanding, entrenched system of wealth and privilege,” Bonadies Torres said.
Harvard defended its admissions practices in court Wednesday, arguing that most students whose parents attended the university are academically on par with the rest of their class and that the group is growing more diverse as the university’s enrollment changes. Athletes and students whose parents work at Harvard also help boost community spirit and ensure that the university is able to attract top staff, officials said.
Harvard points out that donors fund scholarships and financial aid to its low-income students and help pay for research and the university’s other academic endeavors.
And giving money doesn’t guarantee admission, university officials said.
“There are some [children of] donors who get in and some that won’t,” William Lee, an attorney representing Harvard, said in an interview with reporters. “If you get focused on things, no one claims that the admission of donors or donors’ children or donors’ relatives on the dean’s list has any effect on Asian-Americans. No economist claims this.”
Students for Fair Admissions, the group representing Asian-American students in the lawsuit, presented the e-mails in court on Wednesday. The organization has sued Harvard alleging that its race-conscious admissions process caps the number of Asian-Americans it admits every year.
The landmark case is likely to eventually be decided by the Supreme Court in the coming years and could upend affirmative action in college admissions more broadly.
The trial has drawn global attention for both its potential to upset legal precedent and because it lifts the curtain on Harvard’s secretive admissions process — one that pits more than 42,000 students a year against each other for just 1,600 seats.
Students for Fair Admissions backs race-blind admissions and has suggested that Harvard eliminate some of the preferences for children of graduates and other insiders and focus instead of socioeconomic factors if it wants to increase diversity.
Harvard has argued that race-blind admissions would significantly decrease the number of black and Hispanic students on campus.
Harvard has never been shy about giving special consideration to “lineage,” or students whose parents attended the university. And Harvard, like many universities, aggressively woos donors.
But many of the e-mails shown in court Wednesday illustrate just how pragmatic Harvard officials can be about the process.
In considering a student who had no parental connection to Harvard, but whose late grandfather had donated $8.7 million to the university over his lifetime, Fitzsimmons consulted the officials in the fund-raising office.
The grandfather was a “generous donor,” an official in Harvard’s development office wrote. “Going forward, I don’t see a significant opportunity for further major gifts.” The official noted that the donor, whose name was redacted, “had an art collection which conceivably could come our way, more probably it will go to the [redacted] museum.”
The official suggested that the student earn the second-best rating in admissions consideration.
Another e-mail from the Harvard men’s tennis coach to Fitzsimmons in 2014 highlighted a recruit whose family also had the attention of one of the school’s deans. The coach noted that the student’s family had donated to two professorships and given $1.1 million over four years.
The student had visited the campus, and “we rolled out the red carpet and we’re all delighted that [the student] had a great time,” the tennis coach wrote. He added, “It would mean a great deal” for him to be at Harvard.
Fitzsimmons told the coach that the student would be considered for likely admissions in October, a special notification Harvard offers to students it wants and who are being recruited by other universities.
On the stand Wednesday, Fitzsimmons stressed that all of Harvard’s applicants go through the same rigorous admissions process.
And, he noted, applicants are given special consideration or a “plus-factor” for many reasons, not limited to athletics, race, family, or financial connections.
Harvard also offers an advantage to applicants from Boston and Cambridge, low-income students, and those from more rural states, Fitzsimmons said.
“The moment you’re admitted to Harvard,” said Fitzsimmons, who graduated from Harvard and has been the head of admissions for more than 30 years, “you’re part of our community forever.”