Dispatches from the Houghton Library, Part Two: Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Academic Freedom, Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Diversity, Education, First Amendment, General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Policies, Professional Ethics, Social Justice

By: Robert Sarwark

Falling for It

Well it’s fall, which to my Midwestern sensibilities means auburn and goldenrod leaves, jean jackets over wool sweaters, and trips to the apple orchard. And though the somewhat crisper weather has also recently arrived in my adopted home of Atlanta, my second trip to study rare volumes of once-forbidden titles at Harvard’s Houghton Library felt like something of a homecoming in the midst of such northerly autumnal glory.

bikesI had less of a structured agenda this time, which made it feel almost like a vacation. I had learned the ropes of the library system during my first week in residence this past July so was ready to dive right in. Another difference was that, as opposed to the relatively quiet though tourist-heavy summer break, this visit would be about two months into the fall semester. The tourists still clustered in droves on the steps of the Widener Library, but the presence of faculty and students added an electricity to the air as they crisscrossed the Yard between classes. It made me wistful for my time as an undergrad at the beautiful campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison…but also grateful that I no longer had classes, papers, and exams to worry about.

Long story short: I read and took notes for about ten hours per day all five days. I strolled around campus, drank lots of black coffee, networked a bit, and even did some impromptu letterpress printing. As an antiquarian and aspiring rare-book and manuscript librarian, I was in heaven. (Once again, please consider applying to one of these public fellowships if you’re interested!) Overall, I got a lot of work done and savored the solitude and silence of a week of independent study.

But besides these epicurean delights, this time around I also found myself a fly on the wall of one of the world’s most influential centers of learning under intense scrutiny. For, currently, Harvard is engaged in a reckoning over one of its most existential elements — who may or may not constitute its student body.

The Trial

Just across the Charles River from Cambridge, in Boston proper, a trial was beginning. Inclusive of the time of writing, Harvard University is the defendant in a suit brought before a federal court by the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). The non-profit advocacy group comprises Asian-American students that assert that the school has discriminated against them on racial grounds. Despite their high GPAs, standardized test scores, and other achievements, the anonymous students claim that through its admissions policies Harvard has unfairly limited the number of domestic undergraduates of Asian descent in favor of affirmative action that favors applicants identifying as black or Hispanic. (The several articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education linked above provide ample background and context.)

Needless to say, this case is fraught with racial, socioeconomic, and historical controversy. Though not directly linked to book banning or censorship, the issues at play did compel me to consider the intellectual-freedom implications of how schools across the country choose who is and who isn’t admitted and ultimately graduated, and to what extent state and federal laws regulate such policies. Are you truly free to pursue your education if you don’t get admitted to your institution of choice?

While common sense dictates that every single school cannot admit every single applicant, the methods by which the selection is conducted are currently on trial not only at Harvard, but at all institutions of higher education across the United States. Harvard is simply the lowest-hanging fruit. What’s more, the Trump administration has weighed in heavily on the side of SFFA. And while it’s not yet clear how the case’s judge, Allison D. Burroughs, will rule, it is clear that the appeals process will likely kick the suit, first filed in 2014, all the way up to the now predominantly conservative U.S. Supreme Court for a final ruling.

The Numbers Game

Much of the case against Harvard is based upon a statistical analysis of its applicants versus its actual undergraduate-class composition. As attested in the Chronicle:

The current freshman class is 22.9 percent Asian-American, according to statistics released by the university. In 2016, the most-recent year for which federal data are available, 17 percent of Harvard’s student body was Asian-American, which placed it in the middle among its Ivy League peers. African-American students make up 15.2 percent of the current freshman class, and Hispanic or Latino students 12.3 percent.

However, the SFFA legal team argues, in a system based predominantly on academics, Asian-Americans should comprise between 40 and 45% of the undergraduate population, or about double the current numbers.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, those identifying as Asian-Americans are approximately 5-6% of the total U.S. population; African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos each comprise about 13-15%; and those identifying as exclusively “White” are about 72% (I am approximating here because all figures depend on how you both define and break down “race”). What these statistics mean in context is that, though Asian-Americans are already over-represented at Harvard compared to their numbers in the general U.S. population, SFFA argues that none of this should matter: If you have the grades and the test scores (and, secondarily, extra-curricular activities like clubs, service, and/or sports), you deserve to get into the most selective school in the country.

Notwithstanding the (in my opinion) much thornier issues of legacy admits and the advantages given to children of high-donating parents, the major question throughout the current trial is how Harvard will continue to refute SFFA’s accusations of racial bias against Asian-Americans. As of the time of writing, administrators have stressed the complexity and individual-focused nature of their admissions considerations, with academics, extracurriculars, athletics, and personality as the principal metrics. Diversity — whether geographic, racial, socioeconomic, or other — is clearly an intended outcome of this calculus.

By the time I return to campus for my third week of residency this winter, the current trial will be over. I have no idea what the ruling will be, nor how far up it may be appealed. What’s clear is that the broader issues involved — especially those of racism and classism — and their implications to U.S. society, remain extremely nuanced.

But then again, what do I know? I’m just a fly on the wall. And I went to a state school.


Robert SarwarkRobert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.

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