When Donaldson “Don” Hill ’79 began thinking about applying to college as a senior in high school, submitting an application to Harvard was not on his radar.
“If you’re not from a culture where Harvard seems accessible and desirable, you don’t think about that,” said Hill, who grew up in Alabama and Georgia.
But then, a Harvard admissions officer gave a presentation at his high school, and he and several students decided to apply on a whim. He and one other classmate were accepted.
“They did a good job of saying not just, ‘Harvard is a great place,’ but, ‘You should think about it. You should try it. Harvard is for everyone,’” Hill said.
The presentation was part of a set of admissions practices enacted by the College in the 1970s to increase diversity on campus.
These policies represented the Harvard administration’s largest formal effort to push for an increase in racial, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity on campus, though students and activists had advocated for change for years prior.
In 1978, the Supreme Court declared that affirmative action was constitutional in the landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
In an opinion, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. cited Harvard’s holistic admission practices — which he dubbed the “Harvard Plan” — as a model for admissions policies in higher education across the country.
But now, the College’s admissions practices are facing scrutiny in a high-profile lawsuit brought by anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, which alleges that the College discriminates against Asian American applicants by considering race. The Supreme Court heard the case in October.
With affirmative action and the Harvard Plan in jeopardy, alumni, legal scholars, and administrators reflected on the push for campus diversity and how it changed the College’s student body.
The College accepted its first Black student — Beverly Garnett Williams — in 1847, but he died before matriculation. It wasn’t until 1870 that Harvard saw its first Black graduate: Richard T. Greener.
When James W. Wiley III ’65 first arrived on campus nearly a century later, he was one of roughly a dozen Black students in his class, he said.
While Wiley did not recall experiencing overt racism from others students — like “a riot or a street confrontation” — subtle reminders of the College’s exclusivity were far-reaching.
“As I walked down the street to my residence at Dunster House, I would pass by the private clubs along the street,” Wiley said. “I knew what they were, and I knew I couldn’t get in them — wouldn’t even try.”
In 1962, Wiley helped found the Association of African and Afro-American Students, a group that would later staunchly advocate for increased racial diversity at Harvard.
During his time at Harvard, Wiley said he noticed an increasing number of Black students on campus, adding that “student life was definitely changing.”
“I don’t know if that was conscious affirmative action policy, or whether it was what Harvard claimed it was, which was trying to get the best and the brightest to diversify its classes and give them strength,” he said.
When Leslie F. “Skip” Griffin Jr. ’70 arrived at the College in 1966, he was no stranger to civil rights organizing.
As a child, Griffin was the plaintiff in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County — one of the school desegregation cases consolidated into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Griffin became president of AAAAS in 1968 and maintained the position until he graduated from the College.
Six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, AAAAS published a set of four demands for the College’s administration in The Crimson. The demands included the establishment of “an endowed chair for a Black professor” and “admitting a number of Black students proportionate to our percentage of the population as a whole.”
“Fact of the matter is, I think we had an awareness that if we could shift things at Harvard and if Harvard would have a significant response, that it would have an impact nationally,” Griffin said.
Jennifer D. Carey ’78 — who also worked as a senior admissions officer at the College — said she believes after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Harvard realized the nation was “in crisis.”
“In order to have a long-term impact as a leading institution, they needed to do more in terms of the recruitment of Black students,” she said.
A year later, Walter J. Leonard, the assistant dean and assistant director of admissions of Harvard Law School in 1969, and Derek C. Bok, the dean of HLS and later University president, began working together to push for affirmative action policies.
Together, they enacted race-conscious, holistic admissions first at the Law School and later at the College.
Leonard was crucial to helping Black students “understand that we not only very much wanted to have them, but that there was enough financial aid so that they would not find it too expensive to enroll,” Bok said in an interview with The Crimson last October.
When Bok became University president in 1971, he appointed Leonard as his special assistant.
Bok said there were “a lot of problems” in implementing affirmative action policies at the College compared to the Law School, where he and Leonard were “a little bit more successful” in creating holistic admissions practices.
“So fortunately, Walter came with me and we started all over again to try to understand those problems better and see what we could do to do something about them,” Bok said.
Leonard’s University-wide affirmative action policy allowed race to be considered as one factor in the admissions process, along with factors like geographic diversity and gender.
The initiative also included the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, in which the admissions office hired student recruiters and send them to high schools across the country to make the pitch for Harvard.
John A. “Tony” Butler ’80 recalled a visit from a Harvard student through the program during his senior year at Brooklyn Technical High School, which inspired him to become a recruiter himself as a sophomore at the College.
Butler described recruiting diverse students as “a collaborative effort” between the students and the admissions office.
“The admissions office provided office space and support and resources for us to decide ‘Okay, well, what cities do we want to visit?’” Butler said. “But as Harvard students we self-organized to do the outreach that we wanted to do.”
Still, in the early years of Leonard’s plan, the College struggled to increase the number of minority students. While roughly 100 Black students were admitted to the College each year between 1969 and 1971, these figures began to drop in 1972 and 1973, according to a 1974 Crimson article.
Carey, who worked in the admissions and financial aid office from 1982 to 1992, said she saw the eventual effects of Harvard’s push for diversity during her decade in the office.
“We saw the numbers of kids apply and go up dramatically during that time. And the range of schools that we were seeing candidates from increased dramatically,” she said.
Bok said he did not recall much backlash on campus to the College’s race-conscious admissions policies during his presidency.
“I didn’t detect any internal opposition, either from Blacks or certainly from within the faculty,” he said. “In my experience, we had to battle the outside world, namely the Supreme Court.”
After applying twice to the University of California, Davis Medical School and facing rejection both times, Allan P. Bakke, a 35-year-old white applicant, alleged that he was being discriminated against on the basis of race.
At the time of the suit, UC Davis had a racial quota system in place that reserved 16 out of 100 spots in its incoming class for “qualified” minorities.
Prior to instituting the quota system, the medical students of UC Davis were “almost entirely white and wealthy,” said Jonathan Feingold, an associate professor of law at Boston University.
The Harvard administration carefully followed the Bakke case because it put the College’s diverse recruitment efforts at risk. Ahead of the decision, Harvard filed an amicus brief in support of UC Davis.
Bok said he saw the legal fight to preserve affirmative action as a “do or die struggle.”
Butler drove up to Washington with a classmate to participate in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court during the hearing.
“We wanted to support the continuation of affirmative action. So there was concern and activism, encouraging students to pay attention and to try to be engaged in the matter,” Butler said.
The Supreme Court ruled for Bakke in 1978. While some of the Court’s liberal justices supported affirmative action as a way to remedy past racial injustices, conservative justices argued the constitution should be race-blind.
In crafting the judgment of the Court, Powell struck a compromise between the two sides — arguing that diversity of the student body was a “compelling interest.”
The Court cited Harvard’s admissions program as an “illuminating example” because it used race as one of several factors in the admissions process instead of setting quotas for minority students.
“A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer,” Powell wrote in the Court’s opinion.
Noah R. Feldman ’92, a professor at the Law School and a scholar of constitutional law, compared Harvard’s holistic admissions to “the Hogwarts sorting hat.”
“It’s supposed to be some idea that magically the admissions officers know exactly who you are,” Feldman said. “Each applicant is a special snowflake, is uniquely evaluated, and then somehow magically evaluated in contrast and comparison to the other applicants, but without any objectively quantifiable measure.”
Carey pushed back on the viewpoint that admissions officers ever consider applicants solely on the basis of race.
“What is actually being considered is a student’s background, student’s life experience, and what they will be able to contribute to the richness of experience at Harvard,” Carey said.
Harvard’s recruiting efforts go beyond racial diversity, extending to other groups including low-income and first-generation students, Carey added.
“Harvard’s recruitment program did not just and does not just focus on kids of color. It focuses on low-income white students, blue-collar, non-college white students, every measure of diversity that you can think about,” Carey said.
While Leonard created Harvard’s blueprint for affirmative action, Carey said minority recruitment is “not a one and done.”
“It’s something that you have to do each year as you recruit each class,” Carey said.
In the decades after Bakke, the Supreme Court has returned to the question of race-conscious admissions again and again: Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, Fisher v. University of Texas in 2013, and Fisher again in 2016.
“In practice, very little changed,” Feldman said of each challenge to affirmative action.
Now, the Supreme Court appears poised to strike down race-conscious policies in admissions. Questions remain as to how the end of affirmative action could impact the admissions processes and class composition.
“People tend to use affirmative action as people who aren’t qualified getting in. And that’s not what it was at all,” said Deborah D. Desir ’76, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. “It was people who were barred from getting in being allowed to come in.”
When asked about the ongoing Supreme Court case against Harvard, Butler expanded on a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.
“The arc of history is long but bends toward justice,” Butler said. “But it doesn’t bend by itself.”
Other College alumni remain optimistic for the future, regardless of the Court’s decision.
“I think that whatever the Court does, there is a kinship that has started to develop among African and Afro-American students that has changed the language by which we refer to each other and by which we talk about ourselves,” Wiley said.
Myles V. Lynk III ’70 said when he returned for his 50th alumni reunion, he still felt “a little like an outsider,” though he “enjoyed being back.”
“I’m glad to the extent that there’s a greater critical mass of students of all races and cultures that are here today who can feel comfortable, both within the greater mosaic of the campus, but also within their group on the campus,” Lynk added.
—Staff writers Rahem D. Hamid and Nia L. Orakwue contributed reporting to this story.