Harvard Med Alters Admissions Process

On lawyers' advice, medical school decides that a subcommittee that screened only minority applicants has to go.
March 22, 2006

A Harvard Medical School subcommittee that screened minority applicants has seen its last admissions season.

For three decades, the subcommittee reviewed applications from black, Hispanic and Native American students before they went to the main admissions committee for a final decision. With the 2003 Supreme Court decisions -- which upheld the use of race in admissions at the University of Michigan, but barred the university from awarding concrete points based on race -- looming large, the Harvard med school took the advice of some of its lawyers and did away with the separate minority subcommittee.

The Supreme Court rulings allow an institution to consider race as one quality of an individual and one factor in admitting students, but barred the use of numerical quotas and imposed other restrictions on the use of race. Since the decisions, colleges around the country have been reassessing their admissions policies to determine whether and how they jibe with the court's rulings, and altering them when appropriate.

The Harvard Medical School minority subcommittee was made up of about 15 people and screened only minority applicants. The subcommittee sometimes rejected minority applicants by itself, but could not accept students. The subcommittee’s only real power lay in deciding which applicants to pass along to the main admissions committee. “The subcommittee was a kind of screening device that would send only the best applicants to the main committee,” said Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, the school's associate dean for student affairs and former chair of the subcommittee when it was first formed.

Roger Clegg, general counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has fought affirmative action in the courts and on the public policy front, said that, in his view, Harvard got good legal advice. “What the Supreme Court has said is that diversity can have educational benefits,” Clegg said. “But when you look at diversity, you’re not supposed to promote one kind of diversity above all others. If you have a committee defined only in terms of one kind of diversity, I think that does make the school vulnerable to a lawsuit.”  

Poussaint said that the purpose of the subcommittee was to have “a team of people who are used to evaluating these applicants from all different backgrounds. It’s for efficiency, and [someone on the subcommittee] might know that Xavier [University],” a historically black university, “produces some of the top premeds. Some people on the main committee may never have heard of Xavier.”

Poussaint added that the University decided after the Supreme Court decision that it would be better not to have an admissions process at the medical school that differed from the rest of the university. “Even though it’s not illegal, they wanted it all to look the same,” Poussaint said.

Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that Harvard made a good decision in removing the subcommittee. “Even though the intent in setting up the subcommittee was not to create separate pools of applicants,” he said, “it certainly could be spun that way and attacked by opponents of affirmative action. The one thing you don’t want to do is signal there are separate pools of applications.”

John Lacey, a spokesman for the medical school, said the subcommittee is essentially just being restructured in a way that represents "no reduction in commitment to diversity." He said in an e-mail that "dedicated committee members who are sophisticated about minority admissions" will be distributed among the other committees, and the med school will add "an assistant dean who focuses on underrepresented minority admissions" and a faculty member versed in minority admissions to the main committee. "We are doing this not to reduce our commitment to diversity at HMS but to make our process less vulnerable to challenge in the current legal climate," Lacey said. 

Poussaint pointed out that the legal advice the medical school received was not uniform. “All the counsels didn’t agree,” he said. “Some of them looked at it and felt it was perfectly fine and met all of the standards in terms of the Supreme Court decision. Our candidates were being compared with majority candidates. They all got two interviews and at least one had to be with someone not on the subcommittee.”  

Beginning next admissions season, Poussaint said, the Harvard Medical School will have only four subcommittees, each one specific to a geographic region. Poussaint said that one of the benefits of the subcommittee was that the main committee could rest assured it was looking at top-flight minority candidates. Now, Poussaint added, it will be important to acquaint the other subcommittees and the main committee with the knowledge that the minority subcommittee brought to bear -- including, among other things, familiarity with historically black institutions.

Shaw said that he hopes that “they still continue to give attention to making sure they reach minority applicants. Just because an institution is changing its practice, doesn’t mean it’s abandoning its commitment to diversity.” He added that he hopes institutions aren't getting "stampeded away from their efforts to admit minority students," and that competent admissions officers should know Xavier University anyway.

In the past, only the head of the minority subcommittee, like the head of all the subcommittees, had an admissions vote on the main committee, which has more than 20 people. Poussaint said that nothing even resembling a concrete score was ever given based on race. “If we get students from a poverty background with difficulties growing up but they still manage to go to a good college and do well, we give them a ‘listen, you’ve overcome so much, and achieved so much,’ ” Poussaint said. “We’ll give them an extra boost. You get more of that with minority candidates because more of them are from poverty backgrounds, but that goes for all candidates.”

Poussaint added that it could take a few years to see if the Harvard Medical School will maintain diversity, because fluctuations in the number of minority students admitted from year to year can be large. He said that, with the subcommittee still intact this admissions season, the number of minority applicants accepted was down about 20 percent, to about 35 students.


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