The Best, the Brightest - and Bo

by Thomas Gift & Karen Gift - September 07, 2012

What does a Chinese leaderís fall from grace reveal about American higher education? The answer might surprise you.

Earlier last week, Gu Kailai, the wife of sacked Chinese leader Bo Xilai, allegedly admitted to murdering British businessman Neil Heywood in an attempt to cover- up nearly $6 billion in illegal cash transfers abroad. The latest twist in a cloak-and- dagger story that has gripped the international community for months, the confession represents a new low for Xilai—once a shoe-in for the politburo, the powerful nine-member ruling body of the Chinese Community Party.

But the confession also poses problems closer to home. With public attention again riveted on Xilai’s family—and especially his son, Bo Guagua, who this spring earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government—troubling questions linger about admissions decisions at one of America’s top graduate schools.

One of the crowning—and most welcome—achievements of American higher education over the past 40 years has been a commitment to admit the most qualified applicants, regardless of socio-economic background or ability to pay. This democratizing force has been the product of a litany of policies, including the rise of “need-blind” admissions, intended to give all students the chance to compete on a (relatively) even footing.

The result—though easy to overlook—has been to vanquish elite ivory tower’s reputation as the exclusive domain of the wealthy. While students at America's most selective campuses still hail overwhelmingly from privileged households, the socio-demographic makeup of student bodies has changed substantially. Almost 25 percent of students at Columbia University, for instance, now receive Pell grants—often given to families with incomes under $20,000.

It is this increasingly meritocratic environment faced by the majority of Harvard and other Ivy League hopefuls that makes the case of Bo Guagua all the more puzzling. The Kennedy School website, of course, professes to prioritize academic performance: “Harvard Kennedy School selects students…who have strong academic records [emphasis added].”  But does the school live up to this aspiration?

Enter “princeling” Bo.

Bo attended tony Balliol College, Oxford as an undergraduate, where he reportedly ran into problems for his “party-first, study-later attitude.” When poor grades led to disciplinary action against him, the Chinese Embassy in London dispatched a diplomatic delegation to the school to lobby on his behalf.

According to reports, the trio asked for leniency for Bo, emphasizing how important it was for him to perform well. To which the tutor replied that he should, “in that case, learn to study more and party less.” Bo was allowed to take his final examinations a year late (and passed). Still, his tutors refused to write him recommendations for Harvard.

Even so, Bo managed to win a coveted spot at the Kennedy School—where the acceptance is 20 percent (and according to his father, also a full scholarship, although Harvard declines to discuss the specifics of financial aid packages).

Graduate programs like the Kennedy School, of course, have good reason to recruit budding foreign leaders. Exchange programs enable them to learn alongside future U.S. leaders, cultivating relationships that can facilitate cultural, commercial, and even diplomatic ties. Students from countries without strong records of democracy and human rights can learn Locke, Rousseau, and the like— and so it is hoped, return home with more enlightened ideas.

Yet there are also concerns about whether qualified students—both from the United States and abroad—are displaced by well-connected, but otherwise less talented international students. Bo, after all, is hardly the first scion of a prominent foreign elite to attend Harvard. Undoubtedly, some of these students are highly capable. But the experience of Bo suggests that meritocracy may not be alive and well in Cambridge, Mass. Without more transparency, it’s impossible to know for sure.

Unlike several of Harvard’s other graduate programs (including law, business, and medicine), the Kennedy School does not appear to publish merit-oriented numbers on who is admitted. The only statistics available on its website highlight the average attendee’s age, years of work experience, and whether he or she is “international” or a “student of color.” But the prescription is not simply to post average GRE scores or GPA ranges. Rather, it is to be upfront about how merit (or the lack thereof) figures into admissions decisions—and how exceptions are made.

All of this matters not just on spec, but because one of China’s biggest frailties is its failure to foster a culture where professional advancement is based more on skill than nepotism. Indeed, the term “red nobility” is not an anachronism in Beijing; one renowned U.S-Sino scholar has lamented the “myth of Chinese meritocracy.”

“We have to consider the concept of democracy fragile and in need of real and constant hands-on care,” said the late Roy Ash, benefactor of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School.

In that spirit, Harvard should make its criteria more transparent to ensure the most qualified students—from within and outside of this country—win admission. To teach meritocracy—the Kennedy School must first model it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 07, 2012 ID Number: 16866, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 9:27:55 PM

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