W hat place did Harvard College have in the modern University, with its expansive central administration, research-driven faculty, ambitious and high-powered professional schools? A much more important one than this litany of potential threats might suggest. The College remained the most conspicuous and prestigious part of the University. It produced the most generous donors; it outclassed its rivals in attracting the most sought-after students; it exemplified Harvard in the public mind. And it shared in the worldly ambience of the late-twentiethcentury University.
For decades, Harvard College admissions was a battleground over who would be accepted and on what grounds access would be granted. The admission of Jews was a touchstone issue in the conflict between the Brahmin and meritocratic impulses from the 1920s to the 1950s. Then another problem came to the fore: how to choose a freshman class from a swelling number of qualified applicants. As selection became ever more complex and arcane, the sheer size and quality of the applicant pool enabled the dean of admissions and his staff, rather than the faculty, to define the terms of entry.
The result was that classes were crafted to be outstanding in more than purely academic-intellectual terms. Intellectual superstars were a small group of near-certain admits. After that, a solid level of academic ability set an admissions floor, above which character, extracurricular activities, artistic or athletic talent, “legacy” status, and geographical diversity figured in the admissions gene pool. After the 1960s, diversity came to embrace race and gender. Chase Peterson, who was dean of