Harold Wechsler and the Myth of Meritocracy

February 24, 2017

Once upon a time, colleges selected applicants on the basis of academic merit. Then came affirmative action, which introduced racial and ethnic factors into the mix. And the rest is history.

Right? Wrong. Race and ethnicity have always mattered in college admissions. But they mattered in different ways at different times.

That was the key insight of Harold S. Wechsler, who died last Thursday. Wechsler’s first and best-known book, The Qualified Student (1977), shattered any myths we might have had about a golden age of American meritocracy. Going back to the early 20th century, American colleges changed the rules of the game whenever academic standards started to generate the "wrong" kind of applicant.

More than anyone I have ever met, Harold Wechsler put the needs of his students first.
And then there was the question of how — and whether — colleges would integrate the students whom they did admit. That was Wechsler’s other big concern, and it wasn’t just a scholarly one: It was deeply personal. More than anyone I have ever met, Harold Wechsler put the needs of his students first. And those needs would inevitably differ, depending on where the students came from and how they got in.

Consider Harvard, which adopted the College Entrance Examination Board as its key basis for admission in 1905. Worried that it was enrolling too many mediocre young men from elite prep schools, Harvard decided that a standardized test would help attract and enroll a higher-caliber student.

But there was one big problem: Too many of those higher-caliber students turned out to be Jews. By 1908, the percentage of Jews in Harvard’s freshman class jumped from almost zero to 7 percent; a decade later, it had risen to 20 percent. That was too much for A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president, who worried that Jews’ alleged "clannishness" would drive away Anglo-Saxon applicants — and, eventually, even qualified Jewish ones.

The same issue bedeviled other elite universities, such as Yale and Columbia. But they couldn’t ask applicants outright if they were Jewish, which would expose the schools to charges of anti-Semitism. So they started to request student essays, teacher recommendations, and other information about the "background" and "character" of prospective students.

As Jerome Karabel reported in The Chosen (2005), a college-admissions history that built heavily on Wechsler’s work, Harvard’s application started to require each student to identify his mother’s maiden name. It even asked, "What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully)." Using this data, Harvard’s admissions office devised a labeling system in the 1920s. An applicant designated "j1" was "conclusively Jewish"; "j2" indicated a "preponderance of evidence" in that direction; and "j3" meant that it was a "possibility."

At Columbia, likewise, officials sought to limit Jews without saying so. "It would be highly judicious if … some way could be found to see to it that individuals of the undesirable type did not get into Columbia College, no matter what their record in the very unimportant matter of A’s & B’s," President Nicholas Murray Butler told the college’s dean in 1933.

But with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, where Jews had been barred from many roles and institutions, Columbia had to tread carefully. "Our principles and our traditions would prevent our imitating even at a long distance the Nazi policy in Germany," Butler wrote. "On the other hand it is important that we should not permit a publicity-loving minority to do real and continuous damage to our reputation and influence."

So Columbia put applicants through a battery of psychological and physical tests, which helped it identify — and weed out — Jews. "Columbia can select exactly the applicants it desires, keep the Jewish quota down to the fractional percentage it may determine, and defy anyone to slip by unnoticed," two critics wrote in 1931. "If Columbia fails to produce the bulk of the nation’s future leaders, it will be a discouraging blow to human foresight."

In 1978, ironically, the Supreme Court would invoke similar language in upholding affirmative action for underrepresented minorities. "The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through a wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples," the court declared in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The court allowed colleges to use race and ethnicity in admissions, not to keep out minorities — as in earlier eras — but to enhance their numbers.

Writing on the cusp of this decision, Harold Wechsler understood that it raised as many questions as it answered. Which minorities would receive a leg up in admissions, and why? What role would academic standards play in the process, and how would they be measured? And, most of all, how would colleges integrate their increasingly diverse student bodies?

In a graceful new epilogue to a 2014 edition of The Qualified Student, Wechsler acknowledged that the wish to promote diversity had produced some unforeseen outcomes. Asian-American applicants had to score considerably higher on standardized tests than white students to get into elite colleges, leading some critics to charge that the institutions had replaced the old anti-Jewish quotas with anti-Asian ones. There were just too many strong Asian students, the argument went, so we had to limit their admission in order to bring in others.

Most bizarrely, some colleges gave preference to men over women. High-school girls study more than boys do; not surprisingly, they also receive better grades. But some colleges feared that admitting heavily female classes would eventually lead high-achieving women to look elsewhere, just as A. Lawrence Lowell worried that Jews would eschew a college with too many Jewish students.

So some institutions established affirmative action for men, although we rarely call it that. In 2014, a Washington Post study showed that 64 selective schools — including Brown, Wesleyan, and Tufts — had higher admission rates for male applicants than for female ones. Most of all, though, Wechsler worried that colleges had never really accepted the diverse students in their midst.

At the time of his death, he was completing a broader history of minority access in American higher education. Its title, Unwelcome Guests, spoke to Wechsler’s most heartfelt concern: that despite lots of rhetoric about "celebrating difference," institutions hadn’t shifted their norms and practices to adjust for it.

As Wechsler realized, the enduring myth of Bakke was that bringing together diverse students would automatically enhance their learning and their lives. But the facts said otherwise. Many minority students report feelings of alienation at selective colleges, either because the institutions ignore their distinct needs or because they are asked to serve as "representatives" of their group. And white students often walk on eggshells, fearful of saying the wrong thing about such a hugely fraught subject.

Harold Wechsler was my colleague, and also my dear friend. He was kind and eminently judicious, always listening carefully before he said anything. But when I spoke to him after protests engulfed college campuses in November 2015, he didn’t pull any punches. "Diversity hasn’t worked," he told me, "and we have a lot of hard work to do." It will be harder still, without his gentle guidance. Shalom, Harold. We will miss you.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He previously taught at New York University, where he served in the same department as Harold Wechsler. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016).