The Life Legacy of William Fitzsimmons

Harvard Admissions Dean, Harvard Admissions, Harvard Admissions Czar

The life’s work of Harvard’s admissions czar is very much on trial in federal court (photo credit: Chensiyuan).

Harvard’s Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid, William Fitzsimmons, has been the decider-in-chief of Harvard’s undergraduate admissions office for 32 years. So Harvard’s admissions practices and the thousands of admitted students who have gone on to graduate from Harvard over the last few decades are, in many ways, his life’s work. And his life’s work has been on trial in federal court over the last few weeks, as Students For Fair Admissions has argued that Fitzsimmons’ alma mater discriminates against Asian American applicants. It’s a claim he categorically denies.

Who is Dean Fitzsimmons?

But to understand why accusations that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants really get under Dean Fitzsimmons’ skin, it’s important to understand just who Bill Fitzimmons is and, well, what makes him tick. Ironically, it’s a question many colleges have posed over the years of applicants. A profile out today of Fitzsimmons in “The Boston Globe” by Laura Krantz entitled “At Harvard, the legacy of longtime admissions dean on trial” offers some great insight into Harvard’s admissions czar. As she writes, “He graduated from the school in 1967, in an era when it largely catered to the children of the East Coast elite. Today Harvard awards free tuition to all low-income families and scours small towns in middle America for new talent.”

Krantz goes on, “Growing up just 20 miles from Cambridge, he had never heard about Harvard until he read about it in an encyclopedia. Now he golfs with millionaires…Talk to people who have known Fitz, as everyone calls him, since he was an 18-year-old with a severe crew cut, and they’ll tell you he’s still the same man. He has traded the buzzed hair for graying temples and wire-framed spectacles, but he has managed to guard the humility, fairness, and boyish sense of humor that have been his since childhood.”

Dean Fitzsimmons Is A Truth-Teller, Likely Doesn’t Realize the Power of Implicit Bias

We absolutely believe that Dean Fitzsimmons wishes to make Harvard University the most diverse and inclusive university in all the world, and he should be applauded for his many efforts over the years at helping the university realize this dream. But we also believe that Asian American applicants do face discrimination not only in Harvard’s admissions practices but in the admissions practices of every highly selective school. Do we believe there’s a quota, a cap on the number of Asian American applicants admitted to Harvard? Absolutely not — Dean Fitzsimmons is telling the truth when he insists there is no quota.

But what Dean Fitzsimmons has not ever acknowledged is that admissions officers often operate with implicit bias when evaluating the applications of Asian American applicants. Admitting as much could jeopardize the very practice of Affirmative Action not only at Harvard but at all American universities. And that’s a key reason why Harvard finds itself defending its admissions practices, why the fate of Harvard’s consideration of race in admissions decision-making is now very much in the hands of U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs. In the next few weeks or months, Judge Burrough’s will be ruling on the life legacy of William Fitzsimmons.

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