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With End of Affirmative Action, Claudine Gay Faces Unprecedented Challenges to Start Harvard Presidency

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Claudine Gay could hardly have received a harsher welcome to the Harvard presidency.

In a major blow to diversity efforts across higher education, the Supreme Court declared Harvard College’s race-conscious admissions policy unconstitutional in a monumental ruling Thursday that effectively ended affirmative action at colleges and universities.

Two days later, Gay, who has dedicated her academic career to studying race and politics in America, took office as Harvard’s 30th president.

While publicly declining to speculate on how the Court might rule, senior Harvard officials spent months privately bracing themselves for an unfavorable ruling and strategizing how to admit a diverse class of students without affirmative action.

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“It would be premature, and cavalier, and an utter act of hubris to try to predict what the Court will do,” Gay said in an interview with The Crimson in May.

But by the time Gay assumed the presidency, there was nothing left to predict.

Less than 48 hours earlier, the Supreme Court’s decision severely curtailed Harvard’s race-conscious admissions practices and handed Gay the first major challenge of her presidency: steering the University through a post-affirmative action world.

Gay said in a video message hours after the Court’s decision that Harvard will remain committed to admitting a diverse student body while abiding by the law.

“While we don’t have all the answers about what’s next, we do know that we will move forward together,” she said.

Gay, however, will need to lead Harvard on several fronts during the start of her tenure as the University contends with the aftermath of the Court’s decision.

She will be expected to maintain Harvard’s role as a leading advocate for diversity in higher education and strategize how the University will need to adapt its admissions practices to admit a diverse student body.

Gay will also confront a renewed push to end legacy admissions, a demand that will inevitably clash with what has always been a Harvard president’s chief imperative: raising funds to sustain and expand the University.

‘A Powerful and Effective Voice’

Since former University President Derek C. Bok took office in Massachusetts Hall in 1971, Harvard has held a prominent role in higher education as a fierce advocate for affirmative action.

That will not change under Gay’s leadership, according to former Harvard President Drew G. Faust.

“Harvard has been a leader in supporting affirmative action for decades and has vigorously defended it in the current case,” Faust wrote in an emailed statement. “I know that under President Gay’s leadership, the university will find ways to continue to advance racial justice in the post-affirmative action era that began with Thursday’s misguided and tragic decision.”

The Supreme Court ruling will require Gay to quickly become comfortable with the bully pulpit afforded by the Harvard presidency and her unofficial role as an advocate for all of higher education.

Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 told The Crimson in May that the ability to be a strong defender of higher education was “front of mind” for the presidential search committee that selected Gay to serve as the University’s 30th president.

“It’s extremely important that the leader of Harvard be able to speak on behalf of higher education,” Pritzker said. “They’re not the only voice, but we need a powerful and effective voice.”

Former Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine encouraged leaders of institutions of higher education to discuss the future of admissions practices with each other.

“I hope that presidents of colleges and universities will, in fact, begin to talk to one another — if they haven’t already been — about what can be done,” Rudenstine said. “And if Claudine thinks that it’s a good idea to convene a group, that could be very helpful.”

Faust — who made history as the University’s first female president — also wrote that the Supreme Court’s ruling “must not be disheartening.”

“Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to dedicate ourselves to achieving a just society,” Faust wrote. “Harvard remains devoted to its core principles; we know that we are all made stronger by living and learning in a diverse community; we remain committed to the excellence that diversity provides.”

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Rethinking Harvard Admissions

As the University looks to adapt its admissions practices in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, Gay’s tenure promises to be somewhat of a departure from that of her direct predecessor, former President Lawrence S. Bacow.

Bacow garnered praise for his tenure focused on the preservation of Harvard during the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and attacks on higher education, but fostering a diverse student body despite the challenges posed by the Supreme Court’s ruling will likely require bold and innovative decisions from Gay.

Rudenstine — who spearheaded University-wide diversity initiatives during his tenure — said that work might come in the form of Gay assembling an advisory committee.

“My guess is she will want to immediately convene some kind of a group — including admissions, but maybe faculty and maybe students and who knows who — to begin formally thinking about this and exploring what people are suggesting are alternatives,” Rudenstine said.

“One way or another, I think she’ll want to move ahead and be able to suggest ways to counter the effects of the Court’s decision,” he added.

Rudenstine, however, said he is “very pessimistic” about the future of diversity in university admissions post-affirmative action.

“I hope that the admissions people — along with the institutions themselves — may find ways to compensate, but I myself cannot think of how that will be,” he said.

Ruth J. Simmons, a three-time former university president and current senior adviser to the president of Harvard, struck a more hopeful tone.

“We mustn’t panic because we’ve been here before and we managed to craft solutions that would take us to a different place,” she said.

In her Thursday video message, Gay recognized that the Court’s ruling “means the real possibility that opportunities will be foreclosed.”

“But at Harvard, it has also strengthened our resolve to continue opening doors,” she added.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 will be tasked with the job of redesigning the future of Harvard’s admissions practices as the University seeks to maintain diversity across its student body.

Rudenstine said he would advise Gay to frequently consult with Fitzsimmons over the coming months.

“He has to have been thinking about this problem for ages and ages,” Rudenstine said. “So what does Bill think? That’s where I would turn first.”

Rudenstine also advised Gay to focus on developing new admissions policies and a plan for achieving its admissions goals before lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“If you’re going to go to Washington, you better have something specific you want to do,” Rudenstine said. “Otherwise, you’re just gonna sound like you’re lost.”

“I think I would wait until I knew what the right strategy and the right possible outcomes were before I ventured into the political realm on this issue,” he said.

Legacy Admissions Under Attack

The loss of affirmative action only marks the beginning of a greater reckoning on higher education admissions practices that Gay will be forced to wade through in the coming years.

The Supreme Court’s severe restrictions on affirmative action and race-conscious admissions — practices designed to benefit students of color facing structural inequalities — have ignited renewed anger over admissions practices that favor children of alumni and donors, students that are predominantly wealthy and white.

In the immediate aftermath of the decision, President Joe Biden and lawmakers in Congress took to podiums and news outlets to condemn the Court’s curtailing of affirmative action, but also shine a harsh light on legacy admissions.

Biden took aim at legacy admissions in remarks from the White House criticizing the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action.

Biden announced he would direct the Department of Education to “analyze what practices help build more inclusive and diverse student bodies and what practices hold that back — practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.”

Three Black and Latinx groups also filed a civil rights complaint against Harvard on Monday, alleging that legacy and donor preferences in its admissions program violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Legacy admissions have also drawn criticism from some Harvard affiliates, including at least one former University president.

In an opinion published in the Washington Post, former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers criticized existing higher education admissions systems that “substantially favor the prep-school-attending minority children of wealthy parents with Ivy League degrees over poor kids from disadvantaged backgrounds with access only to substandard public schools.”

The logical step to remedy this imbalance, Summers wrote, is to do away with the practice of donor and legacy preferences.

“First and most straightforwardly, elite universities should eliminate preferences for legacy applicants, take a hard look at admissions preferences for those who excel in ‘aristocrat sports’ and resist being impressed by those who have benefited from high-priced coaching through the admissions process,” he wrote.

But other leaders in higher education disagreed.

Simmons — who was the first Black person to head an Ivy League institution — said continuing the practice of legacy admissions makes sense from a financial perspective for private institutions.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with favoring families who have been significant donors as long as it’s held to a minimum — and as long as the students admitted are comparably qualified,” she said.

Rudenstine also defended the practice of legacy and donor preferences within Harvard’s admissions, arguing that it did not create a disparity in merit.

“Probably, you’re gonna find that most legacy admissions kids are very well qualified,” Rudenstine said.

“That’s what the Harvard study found out — that if you didn’t take the legacy kids, you’d simply get the same kinds of people who would have gone to other places, but instead of coming to Harvard, they would have gone to Stanford or Yale,” he said. “You’re not going to get more minority students. You’re not going to get more low-income students.”

Still, Rudenstine said, legacy admissions at Harvard are “an easy target” for criticism and attack.

“Fighting in favor of legacy admissions is probably publicly — and in many respects, politically, certainly — a losing battle,” he said.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at claire.yuan@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.

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