Monday, March 3, 2008

What Yale can teach us about the US
February 9, 2004 Monday, London Edition 1
Section: Comment; Pg. 15

Byline: By Amity Shlaes

John Kerry, Howard Dean, George W. Bush and Joe Lieberman all have something in
common, and it is not merely that they spent January running for the US presidency. They are all
Yale men.
But then Bush v Clinton was also a Yale v Yale event. A Yale graduate has occupied the
Oval Office for a decade and a half now. Assuming Hillary Clinton (Yale Law School, 1973) is
all her fans hope, the reign of Yale could stretch to 2012.
Observers argue that Yale’s dominance reveals something shameful: moneyed dynasties rule
the US. The fact that several of the politicians (both Bushes, John Kerry) belonged to a Yale
senior society, Skull and Bones, seems to underscore the claim of exclusivity.
But we can also argue the opposite: that Yale’s dominance today proves the value of
adopting a conscious policy to effect meritocratic change.
This is a story that starts with old Yale, founded in 1701. That Yale enjoyed bright periods
and distinguished graduates. But it also suffered long stretches of mediocrity, during which it
was known principally for its peculiar rallying cry, “Boola, Boola”. Compared with the
University of Chicago after the second world war, for example - or the University of Wisconsin
before it - Yale was not so exciting. The only president Yale produced for a century and a half
was William Howard Taft - remembered by most Americans as the president so corpulent that he
is reported to have got stuck in a White House bathtub.
Yale’s problem was that it cared more about class than quality. The college excluded all
qualified women, nearly all qualified blacks, many qualified Jews and some qualified Catholics.
It routinely rejected pupils from public schools - the state schools of towns and cities - on
principle. It lagged behind Harvard when it came to accepting outstanding students. Eugene
Rostow, who later became Lyndon Johnson’s under-secretary of state, was a Yale undergraduate
in the 1930s. In a student publication, the Harkness Hoot, Rostow noted that there were no
Jewish faculty members. This was a message to the serious Jewish student that “his academic
ambitions can never be realised”.
In the 1960s, however, two successive Yale presidents, A. Whitney Griswold and Kingman
Brewster, set about making a new Yale. As Dan Oren writes in his book, Joining the Club, the
pair hired Arthur Howe and R. Inslee Clark as admissions officers, who insisted that Yale must
open its gates wider if it wanted to achieve greatness. By 1964, the share of freshmen admitted
from public schools stood at 56 per cent, compared with 36 per cent in 1950.
In the early 1970s Yale admitted its first women to the college. The new arrivals were
quicker and tried harder than the old Yale boys. Admissions policy became “need blind”; the
university picked students first, then figured out how much financial support they required, and
delivered much of it.
Today this outcome looks as though it must always have been inevitable. But it was not. “Let
me get down to basics,” a member of the Yale Corporation told “Inky” Clark. “You’re admitting
an entirely different kind of class than we’re used to. You’re admitting them for a different
purpose than training leaders.” Mr Clark insisted that admitting talent and creating leaders were
one and the same. The Corporation official disagreed. “You’re talking about Jews and public
school graduates. Look around you at this table. These are America’s leaders. There are no Jews
here. There are no public school graduates here.”
In the 1960s and 1970s it was Yalies marching for the Black Panthers or protesting against
the invasion of Cambodia who garnered national attention. But in retrospect, the bigger news
was the internal revolution. “This was a switch to a meritocracy both for students and faculty,”
recalls Donald Kagan, the Yale classicist and historian. The new Yale made everything seem
possible, and this in turn made the university enormously attractive. Its environment inspired
new Yalies such as Senator Joe Lieberman, who came from public high school in Stamford,
Connecticut. George Pataki, New York’s governor (Yale, 1967), recalled how Yale showed his
Hungarian family they might rise in America. When Mr Pataki’s brother was admitted to Yale
without a scholarship, his postman father went to the admissions office and told them: “There
must be something wrong here. You denied him a scholarship.” As Mr Pataki noted: “In a matter
of days, Yale worked out a significant scholarship for my brother.”
At the new Yale, the children of older money - John Kerry (Yale, 1966), Howard Dean
(Yale, 1971) - were forced to compete with students from very different backgrounds. As for
George W. (Yale, 1968), he simultaneously partook of the Old Yale and, as a cowboy populist,
rejected it. For students from these privileged backgrounds, the new policy raised questions that
their predecessors would not have had to consider and produced complicated, thoughtful men
and women - in short, leaders.
To focus on Yale too much, however, misses the point. For the positive consequences of the
1960s’ emphasis on opportunity are visible across the country. What this nearly-all-Yale
campaign year reveals is the long-lasting power of a discrete and beneficial policy shift, even
when that shift comes lamentably late. Or, as a Yalie would put it: “Boola, Boola.”

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