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No aspect of Kingman Brewster’s presidency stirred up more anger and debate than the change in Yale’s undergraduate admissions during the 1960s. The College’s traditional constituency of wealthy WASPs—many of them alumni-bred and preparatory school-trained—began to give way to students from a wider range of social, economic, intellectual, educational, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. But beneath the unfolding drive towards meritocracy and diversity lay nothing less than a deliberate attempt to redefine the purpose of first-rank national institutions like Yale, and to advance a subtle struggle within the American establishment pitting traditionalists against modernizers, conservatives against progressives.
The approach that Brewster and his controversial dean of admissions, R. Inslee Clark Jr. ’57, took toward issues of merit and class was not an invention of the 1960s. Rather, it accelerated and intensified a process that was already underway. The struggle over admissions was a small but significant part of a national debate over the structure of opportunity and social mobility in America. Much more was at stake than the composition of Yale College. The admissions issue was inextricably bound up with thorny questions of race, class, the logic of meritocracy, the composition of the “establishment,” and the nature of higher education and American society in the late 20th century. National as well as parochial forces and figures played a role in the drama, and its outcome was felt far beyond Yale.
During the 1930s, while president James Conant of Harvard was envisioning an educational structure that linked success to testable merit, Yale’s admissions policies still emphasized inherited privilege, tending toward the creation of an elite social caste. During the years 1946–50, the G.I. Bill supported large numbers of returning veterans at Yale, who constituted a much different undergraduate body and brought a questioning, untraditional spirit to the campus. With A. Whitney Griswold’s election to the Presidency in 1950, however, Yale reverted to many of its prewar tendencies toward caste.
The conservatism at Yale in the early 1950s represented a counter-offensive on behalf of tradition. An apt symbol of this counter-reaction was the faculty’s decision to impose a coat-and-tie rule on undergraduates in 1952. Such a dress code had never been required before, but was deemed necessary to combat the “disorderliness” and “sloppiness” of the “ill-bred,” non-traditional students who had appeared on campus during the postwar years. An equally apt symbol was the continuing informal limitation on Jewish admissions, which hovered around the 10 percent level throughout the 1950s.
If Griswold, a member of the Class of 1929, did not willingly inaugurate this new turn toward conservatism, he helped abet it by setting his standard against the most crucial aspect of modernization: meritocratic selection in university admissions. He had little interest in the effects of colleges and universities on issues of class and mobility, and disdained any notion of universities as stepping stones to the professions. The purpose of a college education, in his view, was to strengthen one’s powers of thought and instill a knowledge and appreciation of civilized values. He felt that the prewar Yale had been infused with a powerful ethos of community, solidarity, and unquestioned purpose, and that postwar modernization threatened to undermine these characteristics.
At his best, Griswold tried to balance tradition and change, uniformity and diversity, teaching and research, College and University values. Griswold was not opposed to ideals of meritocracy per se. Over the course of his Presidency, he did help open Yale to previously excluded groups, but essentially in response to the initiatives of others. Griswold’s conservative reformism helped cool the ferment of the veteran years and revived the view that Yale’s purpose was to educate men who would hold property and power in a society that deferred to upper-class leadership.
However much Griswold admired Harvard’s James Conant, there is no clearer evidence of their difference on the question of modernization than the fact that while Conant campaigned against private schools in the name of democracy and equal opportunity in the early 1950s, Griswold zestfully attacked mass education, castigating the public schools as the “rotten pilings” of the American educational system. He argued that the reason liberal arts colleges and preparatory schools enrolled predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants was that immigrants to this country and their descendants, “through lack of previous opportunity. failed to comprehend [liberal education] and therefore failed to support it.” African Americans were equally “beyond the pale, so to speak, of the liberal arts.”
Some idea of how Griswold’s anti-modernizing stance translated to the level of undergraduate admissions may be imagined by considering the wall of obstacles and biases raised against an applicant from an excellent, competitive public high school such as New York’s Bronx High School of Science in the early 1950s: The student came from a public high school, which Griswold considered unworthy; he scored highly on aptitude tests, which Griswold discounted; he had a specialized education, which Griswold thought disqualified him for the liberal arts; he focused on science or technology, which Yale considered unsavory; he was almost certainly from a non-wealthy family, which handicapped him in that era before need-blind admissions; and he had no Yale alumni connection or feeder-school tradition to boost his candidacy.
Furthermore, if the candidate from Bronx Science was not Jewish himself, he came from a school that was predominantly Jewish (partly because admission to it depended entirely on examinations), at a time when anti-Semitic prejudices in Yale admissions were covert but active. Griswold did not condone the kinds of discrimination that had been practiced against Jews and other minorities at Yale since the 1920s, but neither was he interested in taking the initiative to root out continuing injustices.
Even a seemingly innocuous aspect of the admissions process, considering the physical characteristics” of the applicant, was part of a larger preference for the average, “all-around” boy who fit the traditional “Yale type” over the more intellectually able student who didn’t fit the profile. During the early 1950s, the College made little effort to reach beyond its traditional constituencies to identify and recruit new talent, and Yale regained a reputation for non-intellectual conformity that had begun to recede during the years of the G.I. Bill. It is not surprising to find that during Griswold’s first five years in office, Bronx Science sent only seven graduates to Yale, while Phillips Andover (which was nowhere near as academically selective) sent 275. Over the same five-year span, the Board of Admissions admitted almost all of the alumni sons who applied. As Brooks Kelley points out in Yale: A History,”the generosity of the board may have helped to promote the belief among alumni that the admission of their sons was a right.” The point is not that all Andover students and alumni sons were intellectually inferior; rather, that it didn’t matter whether they were bright or dull, as Yale accepted virtually all minimally qualified legacies and graduates of favored schools. Whatever places remained were distributed among intellectually outstanding applicants from less favored backgrounds and social, ethnic, and racial groups—a neat reversal of the priorities to which Yale had officially committed itself.
When Griswold announced that the College would not be enlarged to meet the rising tide of college-bound baby boomers, he hastened to assure the alumni that the Yale man of the future would not be “a beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual, but a well-rounded man.” But it was clear even at the time that the admissions policy undercut Griswold’s avowed aim of making Yale a more intellectual enterprise. Calvin Trillin, a high school graduate and a member of the Class of 1957, observes that while
Trillin concedes that the “St. Grottlesex” students set the social tone, but argues that “there was widespread circumstantial evidence that, on the whole, we were smarter than they were.”
Indeed, while private school students made up more than 60 percent of the Class of 1957, they made up less than half of the membership of Phi Beta Kappa and one-sixth of the membership of Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society. The largest feeder schools (Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville, Hotchkiss, and St. Paul’s), which Griswold considered the epitome of academic excellence and which collectively sent approximately 200 students (or 20 percent of the class), each accounted for only one of the 64 members of Phi Beta Kappa. Other traditional feeder schools such as Groton, Hill, Kent, St. Mark’s, St. George’s, and Taft contributed no members to Phi Beta Kappa at all.
One of the important reasons why Yale’s admissions patterns began to change in the later 1950s was Griswold’s appointment of Arthur Howe Jr. ’43 as head of undergraduate admissions. Howe became the department’s first full-time director in 1954, and professionalized what had been a small and highly personal operation. Howe widened Yale’s reach, and the number of schools represented in each class increased from 300 in 1940 to more than 500 by 1960. Almost all of this increase came from public high schools. And Howe exercised increasing selectivity in admissions, as the proportion accepted fell from nine in ten before the war, to six in ten by the mid-1950s, to one in three by the early 1960s.
Yale had long perceived itself to be an institution with responsibilities to the nation at large, but the way it envisioned those responsibilities had changed over time. At the level of admissions, the institution’s changing self-perception was reflected in the debate over the meaning of diversity. Howe recalls that when “[p]eople talked of the University becoming more of a national university,” they “thought initially of geographic diversity.” The proportion of students from New England and New York decreased from 60 percent in 1940 to 35 percent in 1963; the percentage of students from west of the Mississippi more than trebled over the same period. Howe downplayed the importance of geographic diversity, preferring to highlight Yale’s interest in a variety of sociological and educational backgrounds. In 1956, he went so far as to propose the admission of women to the undergraduate college, though the idea would not become a reality until 1969. While Howe had long been interested in issues of African American education, racial or religious backgrounds were not categories included in the concept of diversity, and indeed consideration of such factors was officially avoided on the grounds that to do otherwise would constitute discrimination.
Like Griswold, Howe was an important figure in moving Yale out of the shadows of tradition, but—also like Griswold—he was more a reformer than a modernizer. Howe said that “it’s always been my style to try and change, but to change in ways that I believe are constructive, not just disruptive.”
To many faculty and interested observers like the University Chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49, however, Howe’s approach seemed excessively gradualist. They argued that his efforts to diversify the student body were small-scale and cautious. The Class of 1967, admitted in 1963, was the first Yale class in which the number of high school students admitted equaled the number of prep school students, a level of parity reached by Harvard in the 1940s and by Princeton as early as 1955. Howe, together with the admissions directors of Harvard and Princeton, initiated the “ABC” rankings, a sort of early action admissions program for those selected schools which sent large groups of students to the three colleges. The rankings gave further advantage to the already advantaged. The question of admissions discrimination was revived in the early 1960s, and Yale was found to admit a lower percentage of Jews than any other Ivy League college. Alumni sons, by contrast, still enjoyed a preference that meant that more than two-thirds of them were admitted, even though a disproportionate number flunked out or were placed on probation. Finally, the faculty made ever louder complaints that the process was biased against intellectuals, artists, scientists, and scholars, and brought in too many conformist future businessmen.
Most of the plants that subsequently flowered in Kingman Brewster’s administrationgrew from seeds sown in the Griswold years. The basic aims of the two Presidents were identical in two crucial aspects: Both sought to transform Yale into a great international university while preserving the elements that made it cohesive and distinctive. Neither government dictate nor grassroots pressure forced them to make this change; their reasons for changing were more complicated.
For his part, Griswold was motivated by a realization that he had failed to make the College the intellectually mature place he desired. By the late 1950s, he moved toward correcting this situation by making several key appointments (including Brewster as provost), and creating several important committees. Primary among these was the Committee on the Freshman Year, chaired by psychologist Leonard Doob. The committee was originally charged with re-evaluating Yale’s separate Freshman Year administration, but found this theme impossible to separate from broader issues of admissions, the student body, and Yale’s purpose. Chairman Doob remembers that committee members were particularly upset by “the fact that almost no students from the Bronx High School of Science were admitted, and that these were serious, lower-class New York boys, Jewish in many cases, who had a real interest in science, and they weren’t the well-rounded types. The Bronx High School of Science just appeared again and again in our discussions as epitomizing this problem.” The 1962 Freshman Year Report, though it was written by some of the more senior and respected individuals at Yale, expressed the malaise of the newer faculty, who brought outsiders’ perspectives to the University. It also reflected Griswold’s longstanding uneasiness with the sort of education the institution had been providing to its students, and the kind of alumni it had produced. The report insisted that where tradition and excellence were in conflict, tradition must give way, and Yale must step up to the responsibilities that America now expected of its institutions.
In order to achieve these goals, the committee recommended that the faculty become more deeply involved in the admissions process, that all bursary work for financial aid students be made optional, and that Yale should eventually “concern itself with the education of women at the undergraduate stage.” The committee also believed that better students would be attracted to a more intellectually oriented Yale through more academic guidance, a more flexible curriculum, and innovations that would allow each student to have “a creative experience.” The Freshman Year Report was the next best thing to a blueprint for the early Brewster presidency. All of its recommendations ultimately were implemented.
A final innovation, not approved by the Corporation until two months after Griswold’s death, committed Yale to meet the financial needs of any admitted student. Yale appears to have been the first university in the country to adopt such a policy, although Harvard soon followed. While a true policy of need-blind admissions was not fully implemented until 1966, the increased scholarship commitment was a major advancement in making Yale accessible to all social classes. The architects of the 1963 interim policy were Brewster, Howe, and Graduate School dean John Perry Miller, but the decision had Griswold’s blessing and is further evidence of the continuity between Griswold’s and Brewster’s aims.
At the end of the 1962–63 Yale academic year, the campus newspaper noted that “[d]uring the past year a quiet revolution led by President Griswold has acquired enormous momentum within the University,” extending from revised admissions standards to increased academic requirements to a de-emphasis of extracurricular activities. “Clearly,” the editorial concluded, “we are witnessing the birth of a new institution.”
Unlike Griswold, Brewster, a member of the Class of 1941 who became President following Griswold’s death from cancer in 1963, was an academic expansionist, and he rapidly assembled the funds and administrative structure to work his will. Yale’s undergraduate admissions was the area most directly affected by Brewster’s broader vision.
Arthur Howe left Yale in 1964. After an interim year under Alton Hyatt ’18, Brewster appointed 29-year-old R. Inslee “Inky” Clark Jr. to the deanship. Given that Clark would soon become a target of conservative wrath, it was ironic that he was initially opposed by the faculty activists and progressives like Coffin, who had chafed at the slow pace of change under Howe. Clark had been president of the Inter-Fraternity Council at Yale, a member of Skull and Bones, and had taught at Lawrenceville after graduation. As English professor Richard Sewall wrote to Brewster, Clark’s appointment disappointed “those who looked for an EXCITING CHANGE, a move toward a New Image.”
The dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale is appointed by and is directly responsible to the President. When Brewster interviewed Clark for the position, he asked whether Clark thought of himself as more an architect or an engineer. An architect, Clark replied: “I said I’d like to design a different student body than the one we have now. And I told him what I would like to do, starting right in with a different kind of admissions staff, a much more diverse student body, a student body that would not have financial aid as a factor.” Clark felt that Yale’s impressive faculty and facilities imposed an obligation to serve the nation by admitting the students who could most benefit from the institution: “the most able, the most motivated, those with the most potential.”
Brewster’s assistant Henry (Sam) Chauncey Jr. ’57 remembers that during the time when the President was considering candidates for the admissions deanship, they had in mind Harvard’s example of admissions diversification under Conant. This was not only because Chauncey was the son of Henry Chauncey Sr., who had been Conant’s right-hand man in establishing Harvard’s National Scholars program, but also because several of those scholars were then prominent on the Yale faculty, including economists James Tobin and William Parker. Brewster, who had spent ten years on the faculty of Harvard’s law school, felt that Clark would be the candidate most likely to improve Yale’s undergraduate body along the lines of what Conant and Chauncey’s efforts had accomplished in Cambridge. Together, Brewster and Clark accelerated Howe’s efforts to broaden Yale’s national base, diversify the student body, and raise the intellectual standard for admissions.
When he investigated admissions policies at other selective colleges and universities, Clark found that they ran the gamut from completely by-the-numbers meritocracy to old-fashioned preferences. At one extreme was the University of California at Berkeley, which “did almost everything by the computer” in an impersonal process that admitted students almost wholly on the basis of grades and test scores. At the other was a traditional college like Williams, where the admissions approach was “personal, subjective, and weighted toward maintaining the kind of college that Williams was in the 1950s and 1960s: white, New England-y, genteel, very much the place for the well-rounded kind of person.” Neither approach would be favored by Brewster or Clark.
Back in New Haven, Clark initiated his restructuring of admissions by getting rid of nearly the entire admissions staff. Clark’s new staff, doubled in size, included more public school graduates, individuals without Yale connections, and the first African American admissions officer, W.C. Robinson. These backgrounds, Clark felt, would provide new perspectives on the admissions process, enable the University to communicate with people who were suspicious of its received image, and eliminate bias and Yale’s traditional insularity.
Building on the work of Howe, Clark targeted more schools for recruitment. Within a year, the number visited by Yale admissions officers doubled to more than a thousand. Clark’s recruitment policy centered on “talent searching,” actively seeking out “all those candidates who will benefit most from studying at Yale and who will contribute significantly to the life of the Yale community. If any of the most promising secondary school graduates in the country do not automatically think of Yale first,” wrote Clark, “then we must look for them. Very specifically, talent searching means penetrating deeper into at least two particular areas: the inner-city high school and the rural high school.”
Clark abandoned the old geographic criteria, resulting in less emphasis on the central states with long Yale traditions (such as Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) and much more on Eastern urban areas, particularly the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. Clark dropped the “ABC” system, which had provided a significant advantage to applicants from favored schools (Princeton followed Yale’s lead, but Harvard did not). Yale’s scholarship policy was altered to increase the amount of outright gift aid, lessen the dependence on bursary jobs, and loosen the conditions that had prevented many scholarship students from playing an active role in extracurricular activities.
Most important, in 1966 the Corporation approved Brewster’s proposal for need-blind admissions, which removed information about financial need from a candidate’s admissions file and meant that the University would no longer reject qualified applicants who could not afford Yale’s costs. There would be no quota on the number of scholarship students, nor would there be any limit on the amount of money available for grants and loans. While the most selective universities had become more meritocratic over the course of the 20th century, never before had any of them severed the connection between admissions and ability to pay. It was a revolutionary innovation.
The policy received relatively little attention at the time, and the financial implications of the move were seriously under-estimated, but need-blind admissions became one of the most important ways in which Yale attracted students from less affluent backgrounds. Since financial aid students had tended to major disproportionately in science and engineering, the new policy also gave a boost to the numbers of students studying those subjects. Brewster observed that need-blind admissions was important in attracting wealthy students as well, particularly during the 1960s: Now that “the pocketbook was no longer relevant to admission, the privileged took pride in the feeling that they had made it on the merits rather than on the basis of something ambiguously called ‘background.’”
With these policies in place, Clark and his team of recruiters fanned out across the country, visiting schools—particularly inner-city, rural, Southern and religious schools—that previously had been bypassed by Yale. In many cases, Clark and his representatives had to apologize to administrators at these schools for having snubbed their graduates in years past. Clark recalled his frosty reception at academically competitive Catholic schools, and his interaction with principal Abe Lass at Abraham Lincoln High School near Coney Island: “He said, ‘Don’t expect me to give you my top Jewish student—he’s going to City College or Columbia. Don’t ask me for my best scientist—he’s going to M.I.T. Where has Yale been for the last 20 years?’ I said, ‘If I come back next year, will you give us some candidates?’ He said, ‘Maybe, but it might take a while.’”
Clark’s first class, the Class of 1970, arrived on campus in the fall of 1966. It was composed of 58 percent public school students, the highest percentage of high school students of any class in Yale history, and a jump from 52 percent the previous year. The class drew on more public schools than any other class (478), but also more private schools (196).
For the first time, the rate of matriculation of financial aid applicants was higher than for non-financial aid applicants. Financial aid jumped to nearly $1 million, 30 percent above what it had been the year before; gift aid from the University increased by almost 50 percent. The class included more minorities of every kind. Clark recalls that “[n]obody came to my office screaming for more Jews. It was just a matter of natural selection. When we were picking that first class in 1965, no one counted Jews, but I knew that [Jewish enrollment] was going up. It had to.”
The Class of 1970 entered with the highest SAT scores in Yale’s history; a student who scored its mean SAT verbal mark of 697 would have been in the 90th percentile of the Class of 1961, and the 75th percentile of the Class of 1966. Put in a national context, half of the incoming freshmen scored in the top 1 percent nationally on the verbal SAT. These SAT marks were higher than those scored by the incoming class at Harvard, also a first for Yale. By year’s end, the Class of 1970 would score an average mark of 81, another school record.
The faculty was astonished and delighted by the leap in academic ability. Scientists were particularly gratified. The chairman of the chemistry department was moved to write Brewster that “[a]ll of our staff who have had any contact with this year’s freshmen agree that someone has done a spectacular job of recruiting. We are accustomed to meeting excellent students in introductory courses but never in such numbers.” Partly due to Brewster’s preferences, the class also contained an unprecedented number of artists, musicians, and actors. A student symphony orchestra was founded during this period, and its first conductor recalled that during the Brewster years, “music grew and flowered in a way that makes campus life today almost unrecognizable to anyone who attended the college before 1968.”
Beyond test scores, the most meritocratic aspect of Clark’s policies was the minimal consideration accorded to traditional privileges of background, money, prep school training, and Yale relationships. The decision to include large numbers from new constituencies meant that corresponding numbers from the old constituencies were excluded.
The reaction against the new policies began before Clark had actually admitted or rejected anyone, when he visited Andover in October 1965. In the past, the school had been visited by Yale’s dean of admissions and his two top assistants. They would stay for several days, socialize with the faculty and headmaster, and hand out large numbers of “A” ratings, promising near-assured admission to Yale. All of this helped add a fresh layer of cement to the “trusted relationships” that Arthur Howe often spoke of.
Clark, after abolishing the ratings system, reasoned that, given the greater demands of talent searching to which he had committed his staff, it would be more effective to pay a one-day visit to Andover with a large group of his newly minted staff members. Clark later said that this was “a mistake which I will take full credit for,” and remembered that the visit “didn’t go well. It wasn’t something that we intended to be a disaster, but for the counselor who had dealt comfortably before with Yale by sitting for three hours with Art Howe and his two top assistants, this was a very unsettling event. And I think word went out from that visit that Yale didn’t care about Andover.”
On the same visit, Clark addressed a large group meeting, at which he was asked how Yale felt about the “bottom quarter” of the class at Andover. Unknown to Clark, the same question had been asked of the Harvard representative who had visited the week before. At that time, Harvard was continuing to pull away from its commitment to thorough-going meritocracy, which most observers agree had peaked in 1954, after which time Harvard decided that allowing all applicants to compete on equal terms was not in the institution’s self-interest. The ire of the Harvard faculty, particularly the science faculty, was fanned by comments along the lines of admissions head Wilbur Bender’s pronouncement that “the top high school student is often, frankly, a pretty dull and bloodless or peculiar fellow.”
By 1965, the Harvard Admissions Office was arguing that since somebody had to be in the bottom academic quarter, it was better to have “a ’real’ bottom quarter made up of students who are productive yet content to be there.” Harvard proceeded to fill their “happy bottom quarter” with athletes, mediocre prep school students, and alumni sons, and sent glad tidings of this policy to the bottom quarter of the Andover senior class. Clark gave a diametrically opposed answer:
I said, in effect, “Yale can do a lot better than the bottom quarter at Andover. We’re looking for the top kids at Andover. If you haven’t performed well at Andover, what makes us think you’re going to perform well at Yale?” And maybe there was a rejoinder to that, saying, “Well, isn’t there a bottom quarter at Yale?” I guess my answer must have been, “Yes, there’s a bottom quarter at Yale. There always is going to be. But it’s not going to be made up of the bottom quarter of people at Andover, who we can predict are going to be no better than our bottom quarter before they even get into Yale. The bottom quarter of Yale consists of lots of people who are absolutely brilliant, but they’re not going for marks; they’re doing something else.” You can imagine what the reaction was.
The response was not long in coming. Enraged alumni wrote letters to the administration and each other lambasting the perceived change in admissions policy. Overlooked was the fact that Andover continued to send large delegations to Yale (though smaller than in the past) and continued to be the College’s largest feeder. Nor was it enough that Clark apologized and reverted to the pattern of extended personal visits to Andover and other important feeder schools, or that by the next year Andover’s director of college placement was writing to Clark that “all of us were extremely pleased with the Yale visit and are in accord with the fact that the Andover-Yale relationship is just where it should be.”
One of the reasons that the furor over Yale’s attitude toward prep schools did not die down was that Clark’s policies did, in fact, drastically reduce admissions from the smaller New England private schools, which had historically been more concerned with social rather than intellectual education. The anger of these prep schools was compounded by Clark’s explanations for the shift. In 1965, Clark told the Yale Daily News that “[t]he old notion of the ’feeder school’ supplying most of the freshman class is no longer applicable,” then added that “the selective prep schools would continue to supply many Yale students, but that the ’ingrown’ prep schools would be disappointed in the future.” The issue was so incendiary pre- cisely because Yale, which had been among the most conservative and inbred of the nation’s elite colleges, was now leading the meritocratic charge. In 1968, Harvard accepted 28 of 61 applicants from Choate, Princeton 17 of 30, but Yale only 5 of 28. The record was much the same at St. Paul’s and many other prestigious prep schools.
Such actions led naturally to the charge that Clark and Brewster were biased against the preparatory schools, and—most explosively—against the sons of alumni, since so many of them attended private schools. As the changes wrought under Clark’s deanship became widely known, a critical mass of alumni determined that, as one put it, Brewster had initiated “a turn away from the Yale that all of us loved and respected.” “You will laugh,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in 1968, “but it is true that a Mexican-American from El Paso High with identical scores on the achievement test, and identically ardent recommendations from the headmaster, has a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from Saint Paul’s School.” In one sentence, Buckley, a member of the Class of 1950, linked claims that Yale preferred public over prep schools, outsiders over Yale sons, minorities over WASPs, and the underprivileged over the wealthy. Other critics charged that Brewster and Clark further preferred Jews over Christians, scholars over athletes, and intellect over leadership.
Some of the evidence brought forward to support this view may easily be laid to rest. It is true that athletes were expected to meet similar intellectual standards as other applicants, but this was a change that had occurred under Arthur Howe’s deanship. Relations between the athletics department and the admissions office actually improved considerably during the Clark era. While the number of Jews at Yale did increase dramatically in Clark’s years, eliminating the discriminatory barriers that had kept them out hardly amounted to anti-Christian bias. Likewise, Clark’s abolition of the “ABC” ratings, far from constituting discrimination against the prep schools, supported his contention that “the independent schools were now being placed on the same plane, in terms of the admissions process, as the public schools. Everybody was going to be dealt with the same; therefore, no more favoritism.”
The Brewster administration’s troubles with the admission of alumni sons derived in large part from a demographic time bomb that had been planted in the 1930s. The admissions office under Howe dealt mainly with the offspring of graduates who had attended Yale in the 1910s and early 1920s, at a time when alumni sons constituted about 15 percent of each class. The admissions office under Clark dealt with the offspring of graduates of the late 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, who had experienced legacy rates of 25 to 35 percent. As competition for admission intensified in the 1960s, the demographic dilemma would have blown up in the face of any admissions dean, no matter how wise and sensitive.
The explosion was worse because Howe was excessively cautious in reducing legacy representation, and Clark perhaps excessively incautious. As recently as 1961, Howe had accepted 53 percent of legacy applications and ended up with a class composed of 24 percent alumni sons, a higher percentage than Harvard or Princeton. In his first two classes, Clark admitted 37 percent and 38 percent of alumni sons who applied—a significant drop, though these rates were still a good deal higher than the overall rates of admission. However, perhaps due to Yale’s changing image, the number of alumni sons who matriculated declined in those years, leading to classes with 14.5 percent and 12 percent legacies, considerably below the levels of Harvard and Princeton.
Clark often contrasted the cultural advantages alumni children enjoyed with the disadvantages endured by the poor and minorities, particularly as reflected through objective measures such as the SAT. “[W]hat’s really the difference,” he asked, “between a 550 [SAT score] for a favored Yale son who has gone to Choate and a 480 for a black kid from the inner city, who has no books in the home, no money, and no oppor- tunity to go to plays or theater or opera? I’m not so sure the 480 doesn’t represent more than the 550.” Clark was prepared to argue that lower SAT scores by blacks and other disadvantaged groups might reflect cultural deprivation. (Such understandings were not often extended to businessmen’s sons, whose cultural backgrounds could be equally negligible and who were taken by surprise by the shift in Yale admissions policy.)
The anger of many alumni over Yale’s admissions policy was not motivated by mere prejudice. As Clark observed, the changes that he and Brewster implemented “represented a statement, really, about what leadership was going to be in this country and where leaders were going to come from.” The alumni were correct in their perception that Yale admissions was a zero-sum game; like most other selective institutions, the University had not expanded to take in the new constituencies. Since access to income, power, and status in American society became increasingly dependent on higher education in the 1960s, failure to get a son into Yale represented more than breaking a nostalgic tie—it raised the specter of downward social mobility. While such fears were exaggerated (and plenty of excellent though less selective institutions were eager to enroll the applicants alma mater rejected), the change in Yale admissions threatened to change fundamentally the way American institutions selected their leaders.
Brewster expressed the case for Yale’s self-interest in admissions reform in a pithy, off-the-record comment shortly after taking office: “I do not intend to preside over a finishing school on Long Island Sound.” His basic view of Yale’s undergraduate mission, as expressed in his masterful 1967 formulation of admissions policy, was quite traditional: “We want Yale men to be leaders in their generation. This means we want as many of them as possible to be truly outstanding in whatever they undertake.” As one of his earliest advisers on admissions had pointed out, there had long been an ambiguity “between the view that Yale’s education is a genuine process which involves growth and change and the view that it is a mantle cast upon superior (by reason of selection) people.” Brewster thought it was both, but he could not agree with the view of some alumni that Yale’s contribution to leadership consisted of “taking a stupid young man and trying to prepare him for Life.”
Brewster was convinced that American society had been permanently altered by the knowledge and information explosions and the country’s growth as a world leader. Yale, he felt, should change to accommodate society’s new need for expertise by admitting students with the intellectual capacity and motivation to make the most of Yale’s resources, and give them the training to fit them for the new demands of leadership; otherwise society would look to Yale’s competitors for its leaders, or look beyond the universities altogether. Brewster saw no contradiction between meeting the faculty’s demands for intellectually superior students and Yale’s traditional mission of producing leaders. He felt that American leadership and its institutional sources had to be modernized if the country was to fulfill its new responsibilities.
Allied to this view was Brewster’s belief that inherited success could no longer be counted on and that knowledge and ability, rather than background, would be the keys to future achievement. As he wrote in a memo to himself, the future promised “increasing organization and professionalization of a society dominated by organized services rather than competition of truly independent proprietors and backers.” In a time of “unpredictable change,” Yale’s “leverage” lay in attracting and educating students who had the “capacity to break new ground or at least adapt to it.” The alumni argument that the leaders of the future would continue to come from “fine old families whose sons have gone to Yale for many generations and come from prep schools. with B and C averages and fine citizenship records” was open to question. If Yale tied itself too closely to past definitions of success, it might find itself without its “share” of the leaders and patrons of the future. Since Brewster sometimes characterized himself as an intellectual investment banker, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that in undergraduate admissions as well as investment policy he was looking toward growth stocks rather than low-yield bonds.
By the same token, it was in Yale’s self-interest to keep pace in the 1960s with a society in which minorities of all kinds were winning an increased share of power and responsibility. Clark remembered Brewster insisting at alumni gatherings: “’Yale wants to train the very best within the black community. We’ve got to turn out the black leaders of the future. The Martin Luther Kings of this world are going to come from Yale.’ It was very selfish for Yale, in the best sense. Yale was not for a minute changing its elitist approach to its role in world leadership.”
Diversity was not defined only in a racial and ethnic sense. Brewster—perhaps reflecting his own appreciation for contrasting types—believed that future leaders would come from a broader array of fields than in the past, and that even individuals “whose creative contribution will not be primarily intellectual or aesthetic, scholarly or artistic” would benefit from exposure to more scholars and artists. As Brewster wrote in his 1967 statement of admissions policy, “[a]n excessively homogeneous class will not learn anywhere near as much from each other as a class whose backgrounds and interests and values have something new to contribute to the common experience.” To those alumni who charged that “Yale took too many oddballs,” Brewster insisted that “variety is a better context for mutual education than is homogeneity. One man’s oddball is another man’s square.” Brewster held that this sort of familiarity with variety and diversity would be necessary for leaders who increasingly would be required “to mold disparate interests and ambitions into group effort.”
Brewster was sensitive to the alumni claim that Clark’s policies overemphasized intellectual ability and ignored the personal qualities that were also components of leadership. Given the rise in SAT scores during Clark’s deanship, all the more impressive at a moment when national average scores were heading into a prolonged decline, it is natural to conclude that Clark reconstituted the Yale admissions process along wholly meritocratic lines. This is partially accurate, but the statistics disguise the fact that the range of scores was expanding at both ends. Clark consciously avoided the extremely test-reliant, objective form of meritocracy exemplified by Berkeley. The 1960s was a time of considerable uneasiness about standardized tests and the ways in which they were used. Some critics were upset by the tendency to confuse achievement with human worth; others felt the tests were unfair to blacks and other minority groups; still others complained that there were many kinds of excellence, even different kinds of intelligence, that defied standardized tests.
Brewster recognized that standardized aptitude tests were the most accurate measure of academic performance, at least for the first year of college, and were a more objective way of evaluating potential applicants than the traditional approach which had allowed bias to creep in. Even so, he wrote in 1964, “I would far rather that Yale continue to take the risk of inevitably subjective judgments than to remit the whole process to an IBM machine relying solely on the testable virtues.”
In the context of Yale politics, Brewster’s observations sought to offer some measure of reassurance to alumni that human qualities of leadership and character would receive consideration in the admissions process alongside a concern for testable intellectual virtues. But the same understandings were, after 1965, applied to black applicants whose test scores seemed at variance with their personal and academic promise, and to students whose creativity and imagination seemed not have been captured in their test scores. In short, Yale’s admissions policy embodied a subjective rather than objective form of meritocracy. Clark and his colleagues attempted to evaluate for potential, took a flexible approach towards questions of circumstance (particularly for minority applicants), and refused to set specific goals or targets for representation of any group, be it athletes, minorities, or alumni children.
Fear of the alumni had weakened Griswold’s attempts to diversify Yale. Griswold believed that Yale was deeply dependent on alumni contributions for its financial survival, and was aware of the contingent nature of alumni support; in the blunt phrase of one alumnus, “My ’loyalty’ to Yale in the form of gifts shall continue for only so long as Yale remains ’loyal’ to me [by admitting my sons].” If Brewster could push admissions diversification even knowing that it could cost millions in alumni contributions, it’s precisely because he was a modernizer where Griswold was a reformer. Griswold’s reluctance to take on the financial commitment of large-scale, laboratory-based science, combined with his mistrust of government aid, forced him to rely on the alumni as Yale’s principal source of funding. Brewster’s enthusiastic pursuit of government funds to support research in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and even the humanities in effect meant that the state had replaced the alumni as the University’s most important patron. The government’s share of the Yale budget grew from 2 percent in 1950 to 10 percent in 1960 and to 28 percent by 1968. With more money coming in from private foundations, and greater gains from the endowment promised through better financial management, Brewster believed that Yale had the autonomy to diversify its admissions.
The heightened consciousness of minorities during the 1960s, the spirit of the Great Society, and widespread antipathy to elitism and privilege were important forces in bringing about Yale’s modernization and reorientation. The University also had powerful reasons of self-interest for changing its admissions policies. But there was nothing inevitable about Yale’s move towards greater meritocracy and diversity, or the institution’s leadership among selective universities on these issues during the 1960s. These outcomes were a result of Kingman Brewster’s personal leadership, and his willingness to endure the opposition that came as a price for his idealism. Clark remembered that in the first year of his deanship, he was hauled before the Corporation to report directly on his changes in admissions policy. One of the Corporation members who had “hemmed and hawed” throughout Clark’s presentation finally said, “Let me get down to basics. You’re admitting an entirely different class than we’re used to. You’re admitting them for a different purpose than training leaders.” Clark responded that in a changing America, leaders might come from nontraditional sources, including public high school graduates, Jews, minorities, and even women. His interlocutor shot back, “You’re talking about Jews and public school graduates as leaders. Look around you at this table”—this was at a time when the Yale Corporation included some of America’s most powerful and influential men. “These are America’s leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public school graduates here.”
Clark’s opponent raised a serious claim of institutional self-interest. If Brewster’s predictions were wrong, and power and influence would in fact continue to be passed down through tight networks of WASP males, then Yale would diminish its future importance (and future financial contributions) by admitting Jews, blacks, intellectuals, women, and the underprivileged. And yet institutions like Yale to some extent determined who future leaders would be, which lent a circular quality to the question of how best to recruit leaders. By reducing the weight of inheritance, wealth, and social standing in Yale admissions, Brewster was helping to shrink the power of the WASP elite, even while he was gambling that its power would be redistributed to other rising groups. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Brewster tried to conserve the essence of the system by steering an evolutionary path between revolution and decay, and was damned as a “traitor to his class.”
Yale’s leaders were not compelled to admit a new elite, but did so to satisfy their own internal constituencies, to respond to broad social forces, to act in accordance with deeply held ideals, and to ensure that their institution was not left behind by a modernizing society. But Brewster also clearly intended that the establishment should assimilate and acculturate the most able members of previously excluded groups.
The Yale admissions office still operates under guidelines hammered out by Brewster and Clark more than 30 years ago, and admissions policies at most other prestige universities at least pay lip service to similar ideals. That legacy has made Brewster not just one of the most influential Presidents in Yale’s history; it has made him a hero to many members of a social class that has itself been changed as a result.
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