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Politico: Ralph Nader declares war on Harvard

Thursday, May 19, 2016

At 82, Ralph Nader is still doing two things he’s got some experience at: running for office and making liberals hopping mad.

This time, he’s not seeking the presidency, but a post that could help shape the nation’s elite: a seat on Harvard University’s board of overseers.

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What’s infuriating many on the left isn’t that Nader is trying to bring his trouble-making to America’s most famous institution of higher education, but the company he’s keeping in his upstart bid. Several of the other candidates on the protest slate he’s joined are outspoken critics of affirmative action.

The slate is the brainchild of Ron Unz, a Harvard graduate and libertarian businessman who’s also making a longshot bid as a Republican for the California Senate seat of the retiring Barbara Boxer. Under the banner “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard,” the five-person group is pushing to cut Harvard’s tuition to zero for all undergraduates and to increase transparency about the admissions process.

However, many alumni following the election contest suspect the call for more transparency in admissions is really a stalking horse for a broader assault on Harvard’s use of race in deciding who gets into the school and who doesn’t.

In an interview, Nader insisted that he remains a backer of affirmative action, but he quickly deflected a question on the topic toward a discussion of elitism at Harvard.

“I’m only signing on for disclosure. In terms of any other stuff, they’re on their own,” said Nader, a 1958 graduate of Harvard Law. “I’ve always been against 250 years of affirmative action for white males,” he quipped.

Nader said opacity in the admissions process tends to obscure practices that perpetuate a self-reinforcing elite at Harvard and other Ivy League schools: preferences for children of alumni (often called "legacies") and for top athletes.

“When you have legacy admissions, then a lot of white students should be going somewhere else,” the veteran gadfly said. “I’ve long suspected that while the Ivy League brags it doesn’t have athletic scholarships, what it does is weigh very heavily varsity performance in secondary school as a factor in admissions … If you get in as a squash player at Hotchkiss or Andover, what color do you think you are? In what black neighborhood is there a squash court?”

Nader acknowledged he was pulled onto the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” ticket by Unz. The two men have become friendly in recent years as they worked on proposals at the state level and nationally for higher minimum wages. Nader says that would help the poor. Unz says it would also get them off of government assistance programs.

While that part of Unz’s background may sit well with liberals, other aspects cause them greater concern. Unz funded a 1998 California ballot measure that effectively prohibited bilingual education. While it was fought by many immigrant advocates, the initiative passed, 61 percent to 39 percent.

And a report last month in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper noted that Unz also supported a variety of controversial writers and groups, including VDARE, a group Unz conceded was “quasi-white nationalist.”

Unz said he funds wide variety of “alternative” thinkers on the left and the right and doesn’t agree with all their views or statements.

“I stand by my own articles. I don’t stand by everything that gets published by people I support,” Unz said in an interview. “I’ve given money to Bernie Sanders. I don’t agree with Bernie Sanders on everything.”

Nader said he thought the controversy over Unz’s ties was overblown. “Ron is a very nuanced guy. He should not be stereotyped as a lot of the world of identity politics does,” the veteran consumer advocate said.

Asked whether there were some people with views so extreme he wouldn’t join with them in a common endeavor, Nader said making progress often means making strange alliances.

“Do you know who we have to link up with in Washington, D.C.? Are you kidding?” he asked. “You just take an issue at a time as long as it doesn’t compromise you on your issue.”

Nader’s presence on the petition slate has clearly become a lightning rod for the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” campaign. “Stop Nader’s Haters!” is the title of one impromptu blog set up by a New York lawyer and Harvard graduate.

Some who call themselves devoted Nader fans said they feel betrayed by his involvement in the five-man ticket.

“As a longtime supporter, I am not just puzzled, but I am really disappointed and dismayed that he’s running with this slate,” said Betty Hung, a 1993 Harvard graduate. “There absolutely are issues around transparency and ensuring that students at Harvard are not saddled with debt and can pursue public service, but at the same time there are so many flaws with what is being proposed. I think the real, ulterior motive of this slate in total, overall is to undermine affirmative action at Harvard … It’s like a Trojan Horse whose real purpose is to harm affirmative action.”

Hung, now with a Los Angeles-based civil rights group called Asian Americans Advancing Justice, recalled organizing a rally for faculty diversity at Harvard while she was a student.

“Our featured speaker was Ralph Nader,” she said. “For Ralph Nader to be in this company … it’s beyond disappointing.”

A spokesman for a group opposing the protest slate suggested Nader may have lost his way.

“In recent times, Ralph Nader has been writing and acting in alliance with some of what I would call more right-wing organizations and individuals and I believe he may think that advances causes he is interested in, but in the case of the Harvard overseer election [he’s] aligning with other slate members who have conservative principles and may take Harvard backwards, reducing the diversity of the school,” said Michael Williams of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard.

For some, Nader’s role in the Harvard campaign harkens to his 2000 presidential race, when many Democrats say he was a spoiler that cost Vice President Al Gore the election.

Another member of the protest slate, journalist Stuart Taylor, said that when he was circulating petitions trying to get the required 250 signatures from alumni for each member of the group some people brought up Nader's role in the 2000 election.

“The reason some gave for bailing was Ralph brought on the Iraq War by running against Al Gore in 2000,” Taylor said. (Nader, who says his campaigns drew new votes into the process, has always denied that he tipped the election to George W. Bush.)

Taylor, a former New York Times reporter, is a prominent affirmative action critic. He co-authored a 2012 book, “Mismatch,” arguing that affirmative action hurts many minority students by putting them in an academic climate they are ill-suited for.

When late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia awkwardly put forward a similar argument at a Supreme Court session in December, saying it was better for some “really competent blacks” to be “admitted to lesser schools,” critics painted him as racist.

“He unfortunately stated the argument in such a clumsy way,” Taylor said.

The Harvard election and its anti-affirmative action overtones come at a critical time for the issue. The Supreme Court, albeit without Scalia, is expected to rule before the end of June on the case they heard last year: a long-running challenge to the use of race in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin.

A high court ruling rejecting the UT-Austin program could pare back the use of race at other state schools. It could also influence admissions at private schools, although they’ve traditionally had more leeway than publicly-run institutions.

Harvard is already facing a lawsuit, as is the University of North Carolina, from a group claiming that the current admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans. Many critics of the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” ticket see it as part and parcel of the lawsuit.

The two other members of the ticket are Asian Americans: attorney Lee Cheng and scientist Stephen Hsu. Both men said claims that the group has a secret agenda beyond the stated one are false.

“Ralph Nader has a lifelong commitment to very progressive causes. I think he has a belief that Ron’s motivation is not sinister and evil and he’s not part of a vast right wing conspiracy trying to entrench the interests of old white men,” said Cheng.

In the pending Supreme Court case, Cheng submitted an amicus brief arguing that affirmative action programs hurt Asian Americans. He thinks Harvard and other schools are hiding the details of how those programs run. “It disturbs the crap out of me that there is no accountability,” he said.

Hsu, vice president for research at Michigan State University, said he saw the “mismatch” phenomenon firsthand while teaching at Berkeley, where some minority students were ill-prepared for challenging science coursework.

“It’s a widely held opinion in the Asian-American community that Asians are being discriminated against,” he said. “Give us the data.”

An Education Department investigation that concluded in 1990 found that Asian Americans were disadvantaged in Harvard’s admissions process, but that the effect came from the school’s preferences for children of alumni and for recruited athletes. The probe said those preferences weren’t illegal, but data obtained by investigators debunked Harvard’s claims that the benefit for “legacy” applicants amounted simply to a tiebreaker between equally qualified candidates.

A Harvard spokesman had no direct comment on Nader's candidacy or that of the others on the slate. However, he pointed to comments Harvard President Drew Faust made earlier this year defending Harvard's admissions process and dismissing the idea of free tuition.

"We take into account this wide range of factors, one of which may be some aspect of diversity or race, but that would be alongside all these other dimensions,” Faust told the Crimson. She did not address the legacy or athlete preferences in that interview.

On the tuition issue, Faust said: "The kind of program that is being proposed here funds a lot of students who we don’t think have need, from families who could and should afford to pay for their student’s education ... We would be using an enormous amount of institutional resources to subsidize families who could easily afford to support their children in college.”

Mail-in voting among Harvard’s more than 320,000 alumni worldwide closes Friday. Taylor said he thinks campaigns like the run for Harvard overseer will ultimately have more impact than the courts.

“I don’t think the courts are going to solve this problem,” he said. “The Supreme Court has been delaying for years and years and keeps saying they’ll put serious limits on racial preferences but those limits turn out not to be serious.”

In mounting a campaign for the Harvard board, Nader is following in some famous footsteps. One of the last major drives to get outsiders elected as overseers came in 1991 as activists pressed the university to divest from South Africa. Among the candidates: a third-year law student by the name of Barack Obama.

While some candidates pushing the same divestment cause made it onto the board in the preceding years, Obama and the two others who joined him on the 1991 slate —Unitarian Minister Forrester Church and American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen — lost that election.

Harvard’s administration has remained largely silent about the current campaign, although the school has implored alumni to vote. Former heads of the oversight board sent a letter opposing the dissenters’ slate.

All the talk about athletes has clearly caught the attention of some with ties to the university’s sports programs. Harvard’s Varsity Club recently wrote to members, saying: “Some of the changes suggested by the petition slate may have a deleterious impact on Harvard and Harvard Athletics.

Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Larry Summers declined to comment on Nader and the other dissenters’ demand for admissions transparency, but Summers said the free tuition proposal is absurd.

“Free tuition is a crazy idea,” Summers told POLITICO. “The principal beneficiaries would be families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution … The next huge step for Harvard should be extending need-blind admissions to the graduate schools. Why should prospective bankers get more financial aid than prospective teachers?”

Summers said he was “proud” that while serving as Harvard president in 2006, he announced free tuition for families with incomes up to $60,000. That has been raised to $65,000. Families making between $65,000 to $150,000, are expected to contribute 10 percent or less of their income.

Summers acknowledged that he pressed for even more aid for middle-income families, but met resistance over its impact on the school’s budget. “More generous financial aid should always be a priority because it’s targeted,” he said.

While there’s little reason to doubt Nader’s commitment to affirmative action, during an hour-long interview he offered some hints of frustration with many liberals’ focus on multiculturalism.

At a time when many campuses are being roiled by calls to rename buildings dedicated to historical figures who were racist and by debates over “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions,” Nader said he thinks some activists have lost their way.

“I think this whole identity politics ought to be used to fight corporate power,” he said. “This identity politics is an implosion phenomenon. It gets more and more bitter over less and less ... At one time there were very serious situations where students were getting beat up in the South and getting excluded per se from Harvard. Those were really serious discriminatory practices.”

Now, Nader said, he’s more concerned with what use Harvard is putting its wealth and power towards. “Is it just a feeder school into the plutocracy?” he asked.

Many who’ve worked with and known Nader for decades say they’re not taken aback by his latest quest, but some also declined to endorse the campaign.

“I don’t think anybody’s particularly surprised that he was making alliances with people he would disagree with about other issues because that has happened a lot. Ralph focuses on whatever issue he is paying attention to at the moment,” said Gerry Spann, a Georgetown law professor who worked for Nader in the 1970s.

“Ralph has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies,” said Alan Morrison, a dean at George Washington University law school who spent years working in the courts for Nader. “My view on affirmative action is if you want to have a policy, that’s fine, but if you don’t tell people what the policy is it’s probably because you’re trying to hide something."

Morrison said he’d “probably” vote for Nader but doubted he’d win. The longtime Nader colleague did offer this prediction if Nader does prevail: “Ralph will drive them crazy.”


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