Once Again, It Is Yale v. Yale in the Election

Amity Shlaes, in the London Financial Times (Feb. 9, 2004):

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.

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