Friday, August 03, 2007

The Sloane Files: On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Again

By Wick Sloane

I’m wrapping up my second close encounter of the third kind with the Harvard College Wait List. One failed and the second going down fast.

I’ve spent a few weeks, since Rich Vedder’s request to weigh in here, asking myself how to tell this story and at what volume. To rant or not to rant?

…. that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

When in doubt, stick with the facts. Here goes.

Let’s dispense with my first encounter. This was an entitled, highest-honor, elite prep school, Latin prizewinner, classical diploma, varsity rower, community leader, Middle East Prize winner, with APs in hard sciences and classics. Harvard deferred her early decision application to regular admission in April. In April? Wait listed. In late June? Rejected. This one is my own daughter, that’s how I know. My question: Why the six months of water torture? Take her, don’t take her. Of course I hoped she’d be admitted. In the end, what I can’t understand is the six months. She started with a worthy record and kept racking up successes. The wait, I think, was mean of Harvard but a fair fight within the social and economic strata on both sides.

My current encounter is a formerly homeless mother from Manchester, N. H., who found her way to a 4.0 average at Bunker Hill Community College and a Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. She lives with her daughter and works four jobs. She’s on the Harvard wait list. Read for yourself this story in the Boston Globe and have a look on ABC News. A couple of weeks ago, Harvard reiterated that there is still no room, though the student is welcome to stay on the wait list. Is the wait list ranked? Where does the student stand? No ranking. If openings occur, Harvard related to the student, the committee pulls out each person on the wait list “to see if there is anything new in the file.”

New in the file? She’s already an advocate for homeless and domestic-violence victims, advising state commissioners from her own experience. What else is there? Win Wimbledon?

I need to defuse any impending rant and offer some fairness. I have no idea what I’d do as a Harvard admissions officer, faced with so much talent. I have spent enough time in large organizations to realize that the admissions officers are the public face of institutional decisions. These people are the agents of the whole institution. They have my empathy.

Here’s the rub. This second student is applying as a transfer, not a freshman. She has housing with her daughter. Remember, Harvard said “no room.” If a college wants all freshmen to live on campus, and that’s fair enough, then there are a finite number of rooms and beds. A college can fill up in that context. But as a transfer? No way.

I’ve been CFO of a huge university. I understand the math and the costs and the space issues. I’ll assume that Harvard has a rational number of students on the transfer wait list, not thousands. A huge university such as Harvard, then, has room for a transfer not seeking university housing. Remember, the most recent reason for more waiting is room – not weak calculus skills. The student has not applied for an obscure discipline with few faculty.

What question can anyone ask but “What is this poor student doing on the waiting list to begin with?” My point is not that Harvard should or shouldn’t take her, though I have an opinion. Why the water torture? My daughter had squadrons of college counselors, teachers, and friends to make her case. My daughter was at school with someone doing the laundry, cooking the meals and washing the dishes. How is someone with a child and four jobs supposed to mount a lobbying campaign against a $28 billion institution? Is a wait-list decision even fair for a community college student?

Here’s what I know about the Harvard wait list. By know, I mean what I learned from friends whose children found their way off the wait list. My research includes multi-generational Harvard families, with their names on Harvard buildings. My friends were alumni or faculty or both and their children were applying to be freshman, not as transfers. Here’s what those smarter than I am (they went to Harvard) believe.

The wait list is an offer to make a deal. Lobbying – just not done for regular admission – is permitted for the wait list. A sort of, “Let’s see if you know anyone prominent who would be mad if we reject you.” Signals about potential to make donations are acceptable in wait-list situations. Adding accomplishments to the file doesn’t hurt but is less important than connections or money. The wait-list message seems to be, “Did we miss something that demonstrates you are one of us?” See this article in The Harvard Crimson. U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee does not think I am making this up. The successful outcome for a Harvard freshman wait-list applicant is admission for the following fall, after a year off.

Now, if we are talking about the already entitled, my daughter among them, this game is unsavory, but the players know the rules and were born into networks to help in such situations. Putting a single mother with four jobs into this esoteric maze crosses the line from unsavory to cruel. Note, again, my point is not that Harvard should take this student. Why add stress and ambiguity to an already-complex life?

That’s the story, the facts in a calm tone. This is enough for a blog. Feel free to stop reading and draw your own conclusions.

The story here brings me to sitting down to read King Lear again. Between April and November of 1971, Williams College wait listed me, rejected me, and admitted me early decision. I know of no one else with that trifecta. In January 1982, Yale School of Management wait listed me. The next morning, I drove to New Haven, visited the admissions director and every member of the admissions committee. I kept lobbying. By May, I was accepted. Half a dozen lifelong friends were at that Yale School that day. They knew the faculty. They brought me where I needed to go. A dozen or so more were alumni, and they chimed in for me. Life is unfair.

I spent my year off before Williams at school in Oxford, not at Oxford. We spent months in King Lear. Shakespeare swallowed me and, to my good fortune, hasn’t let go. I understood the story of Lear clearly enough. Back then, I wrote off the actions in the plot – banishment, plotting, murder, even gouging out eyes – as dramatic devices, metaphors. No more.

I read the play again a few weeks ago. My surprise was how believable both the good and the evil were. I shuddered at how real the play, and the actions therein, were. The evil? I’ve seen it all now. Would Harvard let a homeless mother languish on the wait list for no particular reason? Shakespeare knew the answer, even when he was writing King Lear. On sitting down to read King Lear again, I felt what I didn’t know the first time.

That same year, we read Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy’s book about the stone mason who teaches himself Latin and Greek to fulfill his dreams of going to Oxford. He even carves the Oxford gargoyles. Oxford slams the door on Jude again and again and again. The first time, Hardy’s point made sense. The sledgehammer symbolism – Sarcophogus College – was over the top, I thought. I went to the library here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live. Why not see what copies of Jude there are here by Harvard. Six. I took out the oldest and the newest. The newest, and I couldn’t make this up, is an edition from Oxford’s World Classics. I had to put Jude down this time. The situation was too painful to read, right here as this mother waited and waited for Harvard.

I reached for King Lear again, and found a line that I had once thought only clever. The Duke of Gloucester, the one who’s eyes were gouged out, is speaking.

Act IV, Scene 1
He has some reason, else he could not beg.
I' the last night's storm I such a fellow saw;
Which made me think a man a worm: my son
Came then into my mind; and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him: I have heard
more since.
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport.”

Amen to that.

UPDATE: If you wish to email Mr. Sloane about this or anything else, you can reach him at .

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