How Harvard helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

Sarah Ruden bitterly explains how Harvard helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead:

It was the end of a semester at Harvard University, where I was a doctoral student, and I’d been called into a professor’s office. He was the faculty member overseeing the third-year undergraduate Latin course that I had just finished teaching and grading. One of my students was seated in the office when I arrived, with a look of dignified outrage on his face, having already made his case against me. The offense?

I’d given him an A-minus.

That he apparently felt welcome to petition against that grade might tell you everything you need to know about how Harvard coddles certain students.

True, giving an A-minus to a classics major, a potential “friend of the department” (read: likely future donor), didn’t always go over well. But the same professor who was now entertaining that undergrad’s grievance had, that year, briefed us teaching assistants on the tough new guidelines for combating grade inflation, counseling us to be judicious, to think through what a Harvard “A” meant before awarding one. Hence, it had seemed reasonably safe to assign that grade.


To arrive at the final grades, I’d carefully marked all the assignments and used a standard point scale and the prescribed weighting of each part of the coursework. I had given only one A in the class. The complaining student was smart, but on the evidence, he had been coasting; at an ordinary institution, he would have earned a C, not an A-minus. but Harvard undergraduate courses aren’t set up that way.

I thought this professor would ask to see the student’s written work as a backup to his complaint. That’s what had happened to me years before when I challenged the C-minus I got for my first undergraduate essay at the University of Michigan. The reaction was harsh — I was grimly scolded; the C-minus went unchanged — but it motivated me. I shut up, buckled down and improved my performance so much that I not only received an A for the course but also eventually graduated summa cum laude and was offered the nation’s premier fellowship for PhD study in classics.

All this had misled me as to what I should expect when teaching at Harvard. This professor didn’t ask to see any evidence. He accepted the student’s plea that he had “worked really hard.” Then, in front of the student, he pressed me to explain the reason for my poor teaching, apparently the only thing that could reveal why the student wasn’t satisfied with his grade.


Once he extracted my synthetic mea culpa, the professor happily raised the grade. The triumphant student left, and the professor praised me for my professional behavior.

At Harvard, this kind of encounter wasn’t limited to the humanities and social sciences, where the requirements are sometimes easier to bend. For example, three biochemistry graduate students I knew and trusted all had an identical story. In the introductory course they taught, undergraduates weren’t required to show up at a single lecture or section; they could score in the teens on the final and still pass. The professor’s basis for leniency, they said, was that “they pay too much tuition for us to fail them.”


In fact, genuine rigor — which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students — isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    For decades, Harvard and the other Ivies were famous for “the gentleman’s C.”

  2. Dan Kurt says:

    I spent nearly ten years at an Ivy. The only special considerations I ever saw were given to blacks. I got to know some really wealthy individuals who to a fault were gentlemen above all else. The brightest individuals were middle class and lower class white males who entered the Ivy on merit not connections. However, my time there was during the 1960s and early 70s so things could have changed in the interim. End of preface.

    The Washington Post story doesn’t ring true to me. No professor I ever worked closely with would act in such a crass manner. Rich undergraduates would not grovel to raise an A- to an A. Heck, I can not imagine a rich undergrad even taking a course in Latin. The ones I knew were all taking “social studies” and “political science” or “business subjects” and “history” not the hard subjects such as Dead Languages or STEM as what would be the point. They were at the Ivy to get the Ivy Degree and make connections, especially make connections including a suitable wife.

    Another part of the story was that there was the Trump bashing including the smearing of his son in law. I consider the piece to be an example of progressive fiction rather than the truth.

  3. DNA says:

    What the hell can we believe anymore? But I don’t have to believe this; it is just plain true: the average Ivy League graduate can no longer be expected to be better than the average middle-tier university graduates. The government and society have seen to that. Beyond their social network and their economic status they have no other advantage.

  4. Sam J. says:

    I wrote a comment in a later post about how I believe that the country is falling behind in management skills. Maybe this is why. Management is only interested in short term bottom line and I believe is not capable of innovating to sustain business. The present CEO of Lockheed Martin is a prime example and likely a large amount of the reason the F-35 program is so dismal. She used to manage bread companies. She doesn’t have the technical skills to manage Lockheed.

  5. Kirk says:

    Sam J.,

    I think the root of the problem isn’t that the country is falling behind in management skills so much as it is that the whole paradigm of “management” that we have is fundamentally flawed.

    You can’t manage what you don’t know how to do, and the whole MBA concept is that management is a separate discipline unto itself, and that anyone trained as a manager can manage anything that is manageable. Which, I will submit, is manifestly delusional.

    You want a subject-matter expert running things, no matter what. Look at Detroit–The bean counting types took over, and ran the companies into the ground. Same with Toyota–Back when they were the world-beating car manufacturer, they were managed by car guys, who had engineering or design backgrounds. Then, they hit the crisis, and the accountants took over. You can start to see the decline of the company in the aftermath of that, although I’ve heard rumors that the car guys conducted a bit of a coup against the bean counters.

    Doesn’t matter where it is, what industry you look at, or which government agency it is: If the place is run by people who didn’t come up “doing the job”, it is almost guaranteed to be a total cluster-fark.

    I think that we’re going to look back at the late Twentieth Century as the era of the MBA, and the industrial/governmental malaise of the period is going to be laid at the door of those over-educated idiots. Every single poor decision I see implemented in most of the companies I buy from is eventually traceable back to the “management gurus” that everyone thinks are essential to running these firms. Look at Sears, for example: Management by MBAs, making “safe” decisions. Now, Sears is on life support, and Amazon is eating their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. How did it happen that Sears shut down its catalog operations just as the Internet was taking off, and then completely missed the implications of what Bezos was doing?

    You can’t manage what you don’t understand, and there was nobody there at the helm who really understood retail, marketing, and what the hell business they were actually in. Sears could have dominated the 21st Century in retail, but were too short-sighted and ignorant. Instead, Amazon is going to do what they could have done, and the whole reason boils down to those damn MBAs. Frankly, if I were running a large company, I’d go through the ranks with a sword, and fire every single one of them.

    Every big-box store, including Costco, has the same issues. They try to “manage” the unmanageable, and the result is that there’s some central computer in corporate headquarters trying to run every store in the country, paying no attention at all to local conditions. I go into the local Home Depot, and what do I find? The same crap I’d find in one in Alabama, which makes a limited amount of sense for uniformity, but when you consider the differences imposed by climate and local market…? And, add in that the local managers have no input or control over things done in their stores? LOL… There’s little to no wonder that they can’t keep good people working for them.

    Had a chat with a Costco manager, not too long ago, and expressed my frustration that there was no way of checking availability or what models were actually in stock at the local branch. You want to know what they have, you have to call the managers and ask them to go out and look at the specific item model number. How much bloody sense does that make? And, try finding stuff in the store–You should be able to go online, look at availability, and find out specifically which aisle the product is in, but… No, you can’t. And, oh-by-the-way, the in-store inventory control is done on an MS-DOS computer and program system that can’t talk to the Internet in the first place, which is why there’s such a huge gulf between the online Costco, and the actual one you walk into. That shit, right there? That’s why I’d sell my stock in that company tomorrow, and start buying Amazon. Piss-poor management with no real idea of what ‘effing business they’re in, and who won’t listen to their employees or customers.

  6. Slovenian Guest says:

    Like the bean counter McNamara and his managerial business perspective on war, with war managers, and soldier workers, producing enemy bodies, and if the only thing that counts in warfare is economics, then it was impossible for the U.S. to lose, it was impossible for a peasant economy to beat the United States, it just couldn’t happen, to quote from Reasons for Failure again.

    Now another peasant economy will beat you:
    China’s coming global energy domination

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