James Traub first points out that he was a beneficiary of preferential treatment because his father had attended Harvard:
…in the late 1960s and early 1970s, supposedly a time when the admissions process had at last been freed of archaic bias, “legacies” were two-and-a-half to three times likelier to be admitted than was the average applicant; that admitted legacies ranked lower than average admits on everything Harvard cared about—personal attributes, extracurricular activities, academic achievement, recommendations, and so forth; and that the degree of preference granted legacies was only slightly less than that given to black candidates, who in turn received less of a thumb on the scale than did athletes. I was, in short, an affirmative-action baby.
The “well-rounded” requirements at Harvard were devised to keep out bright, urban Jewish intellectuals. James Traub reviews Jerome Karabel’s book The Chosen, which describes the history of Harvard’s unpublicized affirmative action program for WASPs.
…the admissions systems at the Big Three were built expressly to keep out people like my father—smart, driven Jewish kids from gigantic New York City public high schools. Until 1920 or so, anyone could gain admission to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton by passing a battery of subject-matter exams.
By 1920, the Big Three presidents were looking on in horror as Columbia, the Ivy League school situated in the midst of the melting pot, became 40 percent Jewish.
In 1922, [Harvard president Lawrence] Lowell was reckless enough to think that he could solve “the Jew problem,” as he was wont to call it, with a straightforward quota. This provoked a mighty uproar among faculty members and outsiders with more tender consciences; instead, Lowell agreed to limit the size of the entering class and to institute recommendation letters and personal interviews. Yale and Princeton followed suit; and soon came the whole panoply familiar to this day: lengthy applications, personal essays, descriptions of extracurricular activities. This cumbersome and expensive process served two central functions. It allowed the universities to select for an attribute the disfavored class was thought to lack—i.e., “character”—and it shrouded the admissions process in impenetrable layers of subjectivity and opacity, thus rendering it effectively impervious to criticism. The swift drop in admission of Jews could thus be explained as the byproduct of the application of neutral principles…
The willingness of these universities to suffer real harms rather than admit more Jews is astonishing. Having long distinguished itself as a “national” and “democratic” institution, Yale by 1930 had become more insular, more parochial, and less intellectual as a consequence of the new admissions system. During World War II, with the size of the entering class size [sic] seriously depleted, Yale turned away qualified Jewish students rather than increase the proportion of Jews.
Things are changing but it doesn’t always work out well:
the Big Three ramped up the admission of black students almost overnight owing not to some midnight conversion but to terror at the rising tide of black anger and violence—owing, that is, to racial blackmail. And because the elite universities began admitting large numbers of black students with sub-par academic records at precisely the moment they were becoming more “meritocratic”—i.e, more academically selective—affirmative action felt more like a violation of meritocratic principle than a recalibration of it. This painful fact continues to haunt affirmative action
Racial paranoia, I’d call it.