Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

News Briefs

November-December 2018

Admissions Litigation

As the University and Students for Fair Admissions—the litigant alleging that Harvard College discriminates against Asian-American applicants—girded for trial beginning October 15 (after this issue went to press), the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in, opposing the University’s position. In a statement of interest, the department, which has been challenging policies supportive of holistic admissions policies that take race into account, asserted, “Harvard has failed to carry its demanding burden to show that its use of race does not inflict unlawful racial discrimination on Asian Americans.” In a statement calling the Justice filing “deeply disappointing,” Harvard said of the department’s action, “This decision is not surprising given the highly irregular investigation the DOJ has engaged in thus far, and its recent action to repeal Obama-era guidelines on the consideration of race in admissions.” The case is seen as a possible precursor to yet another Supreme Court review of the use of affirmative-action criteria to diversify student bodies, consistent with a series of prior rulings that have upheld such practices within narrow criteria. (See “Litigating Admissions,” September-October, page 17, for background, and read about the opening presentations in court here.)

Separately, Yale president Peter Salovey revealed in late September that the government is investigating it for discrimination against Asian-American applicants, too, suggesting a concerted federal assault on the use of race in admissions. He wrote “to state unequivocally that Yale does not discriminate in admissions against Asian Americans or any other racial or ethnic group.”

Sexual Assaults on Campuses

News reports in late August indicated that the U.S. Department of Education was preparing new policies and guidelines on campus sexual assault under the federal Title IX—an issue of interest to secretary Betsy DeVos. They would apparently narrow the definition of incidents to be investigated to those subject to formal complaints filed through official channels, and confine the incidents to those occurring on schools’ campuses. If promulgated, the rules are thought likely to relax standards created during the Obama administration beginning in 2011—in response to which Harvard and other institutions created new reporting and hearing processes, standards, and training protocols, the future of which might be altered by the forthcoming guidance. Some opponents of the Obama-era regulations have maintained that they deprive students accused of sexual harassment or assault of ordinary due-process rights.

Hemorrhaging Humanities?

Benjamin M. Schmidt ’03, assistant professor of history at Northeastern, who blogs about the digital humanities, in mid July headlined a long post, “Mea culpa: there is a crisis in the humanities.” Revising conclusions he reached in 2013, he found that “The last five years have been brutal for almost every major in the humanities,” as degrees in philosophy, languages, history, and English have cratered—rather than stabilizing or recovering after a recession-induced downturn in 2008. The same holds for “more humanistic social sciences like sociology or political science.” His new data also revealed that “the trend is stronger higher up the prestige chain.” Thus, “The elite liberal-arts colleges were, until 2011 or so, the only schools where humanities, social sciences, and sciences actually split up the pie evenly: now, humanities are down from 35 percent to 22 percent of degrees,” with similarly steep declines at elite universities, like Harvard, where entering freshmen have increasingly indicated plans to concentrate in engineering and computer science, at the expense of humanities and social sciences.

Taxing Matters

Enactment of the federal tax on well-endowed colleges’ and universities’ endowment investment income alarmed Harvard and peer institutions last year (see harvardmag.com/endowment-tax-18). The University estimates its initial liability may be about $40 million—but it worries even more about the precedent that was set.

That worry may have been amplified when Jay Gonzales, the Democratic nominee in this year’s Massachuetts gubernatorial race, proposed to fund his plans for investments in transportation and schooling by imposing a 1.6 percent annual tax on endowment assets. He aimed at private, nonprofit institutions with endowments valued at $1 billion or more: Harvard and MIT, but also Tufts, Williams, Amherst, Smith, Wellesley, Boston College, and Boston University. For Harvard, the formula—averaging endowment values over the previous five years—would yield an initial tax of about $560 million: more than 10 percent of University operating revenues in fiscal year 2017, and exactly as much as the University’s total spending on scholarships in fiscal year 2017 (the latest figures available). The proposed tax, in effect, would raise the distribution on the endowment to nearly 7 percent, leaving little if any investment return to maintain spending power against inflation.

When he made his proposal, Gonzalez trailed the incumbent, Charles D. Baker ’79, significantly in the polls. But after fretting about Republican hostility toward elite private universities last year, Harvard leaders cannot have been thrilled to have the liberal candidate, in one of the most liberal states in the nation, advancing a stiff tax on endowments as a pillar of a populist agenda.

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