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At Harvard, the legacy of longtime admissions dean on trial

Harvard admissions dean William Fitzsimmons in 2009.
Harvard admissions dean William Fitzsimmons in 2009.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It was early 2013 and William Fitzsimmons, the legendary admissions dean at Harvard, was agitated. In fact, he was furious.

The reason? A New York Times column by David Brooks highlighting the implication by conservative Ron Unz that Harvard sets a quota for the number of Asian-American students it admits each year.

Fitzsimmons, 74, had spent his entire career pushing Harvard to become more diverse by every measure possible. The suggestion that he was purposely limiting the number of Asian-Americans hit him like an insult. So in the wee hours of a Saturday morning, Fitzsimmons fired off not one but four possible rebuttals to Brooks’s column to his staff for review.

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“There will never be limits on excellence at Harvard,” he wrote in one draft. “We will continue to seek the nation’s and the world’s most promising students from all ethnic, cultural and religious heritages.”

Brooks anticipated the blowback. “You’re going to want to argue with Unz’s article all the way along,” his column said. “But it’s potentially ground-shifting.”

The column was prophetic; the ground has shifted. Six years later, Harvard finds itself defending its admissions practices against a group claiming Harvard illegally discriminates against qualified Asian-American applicants. The trial has become one of the most closely followed events in higher education this decade. The case will likely reach the US Supreme Court, and the outcome could influence admissions and affirmative action policies nationwide.

In many ways, it is Fitzsimmons’ own legacy that is on trial, for he has run the Harvard undergraduate admissions operation for 32 years. He graduated from the school in 1967, in an era when it largely catered to the children of the East Coast elite. Today Harvard awards free tuition to all low-income families and scours small towns in middle America for new talent. Fitzsimmons himself has become something of an institution, the personification of the modern philosophy that determines which lucky 2,000 students each year receive acceptance letters.

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“I’m proud that Harvard over time . . . has really opened the gates of Harvard in all kinds of ways to a much larger range of talent,” Fitzsimmons said from the stand in federal district court last week, in a scene that would likely have felt unfathomable to him just a few years ago.

Four days in a row, Fitzsimmons took the stand to explain, in granular detail, the techniques he has honed over the years to pick a freshman class from thousands of sterling applicants. And how all of it is intertwined with his own blue-collar upbringing.

“Diversity adds an essential ingredient,” Fitzsimmons told the court. Race is just one factor among many considered, he said. He called the Harvard of today a “profoundly better place” than it was during his time, because of the diversity his admissions team has brought to campus.

Through a spokeswoman, he declined a request for an interview from the Globe.

As the son of a Weymouth gas station owner, Fitzsimmons is living testament to the power of a Harvard education to change a person’s lot in life.

Growing up just 20 miles from Cambridge, he had never heard about Harvard until he read about it in an encyclopedia. Now he golfs with millionaires. The summer after he graduated, he had to get a bank loan to travel to Europe with classmates. Now he jets around the world on Harvard’s dime. Growing up, Fitzsimmons hung out with his parents’ friends at the gas station, and with the boys at Archbishop Williams, the Catholic high school he attended. He recently celebrated his 50th Harvard reunion with friends at the Kennebunkport home of Craig Stapleton, the former US ambassador to France.

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But talk to people who have known Fitz, as everyone calls him, since he was an 18-year-old with a severe crew cut, and they’ll tell you he’s still the same man. He has traded the buzzed hair for graying temples and wire-framed spectacles, but he has managed to guard the humility, fairness, and boyish sense of humor that have been his since childhood. He has no children of his own, but he is the grandfather of nearly 40 classes of Harvard freshmen.

The trial has also shown him to be a savvy operator, balancing his dedication to equal access, even as Harvard grants an extra boost to athletes and the children of donors and alumni.

Fitzsimmons often enlists friends to help with admissions recruiting, and his 1967 classmate Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, calls him “an egalitarian soul.” Ridge said they joke about the “Erie quota,” meaning whether the school will accept any students from the small town where Ridge grew up in public housing.

Last year Fitzsimmons called him excitedly, Ridge said, because a Somali student from Erie had been admitted. Fitzsimmons wanted Ridge to call and welcome him to the class.

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“I thought, that is very reflective of how he views his responsibility to build as diverse a class as possible,” Ridge said.

Fitzsimmons is the rare 74-year-old admissions dean who still takes recruiting trips. Every year he goes to West Virginia with his counterpart from Yale.

“I just remember myself feeling tired . . . and watching Bill’s energy and being truly amazed at Bill’s ability to do that,” said the Yale dean, Jeremiah Quinlan. The pair always stop at Weaver’s, a diner on the Maryland border, for pie. Quinlan said he admires Fitzsimmons’ encyclopedic memory and knowledge about the country.

“He connects the larger demographic and socioeconomic issues of the country to the admissions work that we do,” he said.

William Fitzsimmons is the personification of the modern philosophy that determines which lucky 2,000 students each year receive Harvard acceptance letters.
William Fitzsimmons is the personification of the modern philosophy that determines which lucky 2,000 students each year receive Harvard acceptance letters. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

Fitzsimmons is also aware of the sway his post gives him over the admissions industry. In the early 2000s, he was part of an effort to reduce the influence of standardized tests. Before that, he was known to rail against expensive SAT tutors and academic coaching.

“We want to get the word out more clearly that tests should not be used in a rigid way,” Fitzsimmons said in 2008 at a conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which had asked him to lead a panel examining testing issues. Many colleges, though not Harvard, today are test-optional, and the role of such assessments is indeed diminished.

“There’s no other way to say it, but if Fitz is on something, or leads something, people pay attention,” said Joyce Smith, who is now chief executive officer of that association.

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Fitzsimmons’ pioneering efforts have not always been successful. In 2006, Harvard did away with a policy known as “early action,” which allowed students to apply early to one school and commit to it, if admitted. Fitzsimmons said it was his attempt to quell the “college admissions frenzy,” which was particularly bad for low-income students because it lessened their chance of receiving financial aid.

But when few other elite schools followed suit, Harvard reinstated the policy after Fitzsimmons said he was losing diverse applicants to other schools, who were locking them in.

When the international recruitment market was just beginning in the 2000s, he traveled to China to tout Harvard as a place for scholars of math and science, not just humanities.

“There are no quotas, no limits on the number of Chinese students we might take,” he told a group of students at Beijing No. 4 High School in 2008. “We know there are very good students from China not applying now. I hope to get them in the pool to compete.”

He was something of a diplomat at the time as well, meeting with Chinese officials to persuade them to offer the SAT in mainland China instead of just Hong Kong or Taiwan so students who couldn’t afford that trip could apply.

That sort of international hob-nobbing is a long way from where he started. When Fitzsimmons was a junior admissions officer at Harvard, he was assigned to recruit from the Boston Public Schools. Michael Contompasis, the longtime headmaster at Boston Latin School, met Fitzsimmons back then. Over the years, they negotiated over hundreds of BLS students who applied to Harvard.

Recently, when Contompasis was back at BLS as interim headmaster, he pushed for a student who had grown up in the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments housing project in Jamaica Plain and overcome major obstacles in his academic rise. Harvard was hesitant, but Contompasis won.

“Fitz, over the years, obviously has developed an inner sense of ‘Is this kid going to make it here, does he or she have the wherewithal to go through four years at Harvard?’ ”

If anyone can understand where Fitzsimmons is coming from in all this, it is Joe O’Donnell, a wealthy Boston businessman who rose from similarly humble roots thanks to Harvard. The son of a cop from Everett, he said Cambridge felt like another country to him when he first stepped on campus. He and Fitzsimmons bonded over that.

The summer after they graduated, the pair took a trip with friends to Europe. Fitzsimmons and O’Donnell each borrowed $1,000 from the bank to afford the six-week vacation.

“Who would have thought that when Malden was a long trip for me from Everett, that we were in Europe,” he said. “We were walking along and thinking how lucky we were to go to a place like Harvard.”

Now when he and O’Donnell play golf, Fitzsimmons brings applications along to read. “My guess is he goes to bed with them,” O’Donnell said.

Fitz was not the only Harvard admissions employee to take the stand during the trial, but he was the most fluent, speaking with the ease that comes from decades of experience. But even as he fends off the charges of unfairness — charges he considers manifestly unfair — he admits there is always more to do.

“It’s a work in progress, we always feel we can do better,” he said. Soon applications will begin to flood in for the class of 2023.


Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.