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Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2004 / 20 Shevat 5764

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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A Political Year of Yalies: Boola Boola for Meritocracy | John F. 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 president. They are all Yale men.

But then, Bush versus Clinton was also a Yale-versus-Yale event. A Yale graduate has occupied the Oval Office for a decade and a half now. Assuming Hillary Rodham Clinton (Yale Law School, 1973) is all some of her fans hope, the reign of Yale could stretch to 2012 and beyond.

Observers have tended to argue that the number of Yalies on the political stage reveals something shameful: that the United States is, as long suspected, dominated by moneyed dynasties. The fact that some of the politicians (Kerry and both Bushes) 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 a meritocracy.

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 or UC Berkeley after World War II, for example — or the University of Wisconsin before it — Yale was not so exciting. Chicago had its Great Books program, Berkeley had its cyclotron and Wisconsin had Alexander Meiklejohn, whose Experimental University immersed students in all aspects of Greek civilization.

Yale was less innovative. And as for leaders, the only president Yale produced for centuries was William Howard Taft — remembered by most Americans as the president so corpulent that he reportedly 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 public school students on principle and lagged behind Harvard in accepting outstanding kids.

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Eugene V. Rostow, who became Lyndon Johnson's point man on Vietnam, 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 realized."

In the 1960s, however, two successive Yale presidents, A. Whitney Griswold and Kingman Brewster, set about making a new Yale. As author Dan Oren writes in his book "Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale," the pair hired Arthur Howe and R. Inslee Clark as admissions officers. They 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%, compared with 36% in 1950. In the early 1970s, Yale admitted its first women. The new arrivals, it was found, were quicker, scored better on standardized tests 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 have been inevitable. But it was not.

"Let me get down to basics," a member of the Yale Corp., the university's governing board, 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."

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 Black Panthers or protesting the invasion of Cambodia that garnered national attention for the university. But in retrospect, the bigger news was the internal revolution. It was a switch to a meritocracy for both students and faculty.

"The policy worked," remembers 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 like Lieberman, who came from a public high school in Stamford, Conn. George E. Pataki, New York's governor (Yale, 1967), recalled in the Albany Times-Union how Yale allowed his Hungarian family to rise in America. When Pataki's brother was admitted to Yale without a scholarship, his postman father went to the admissions office and said: "There must be something wrong here. You denied him a scholarship." Even though the elder Pataki was full of bravado, he knew that the admissions office in New Haven might slam an Ivy door in his face. Nonetheless, the impossible happened: Yale listened. As George 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 — Kerry (Yale, 1966), Dean (Yale, 1971) — were forced to compete with students from far different backgrounds. As for George W. (Yale, 1968), he partook of the old Yale and, as a cowboy populist, rejected it. For students from these privileged backgrounds, the new admissions policies created situations that their predecessors would not have had to consider and produced many complicated, thoughtful men and women — in short, leaders.

To focus on Yale too much, however, misses the point — 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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JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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