A tribute to a pioneer of campus diversity

Dec 12, 2016 · 6 min read

When I studied in Japan, I felt first hand how a diverse and international university experience can contribute to better lives but also a connected, more tolerant and more equal world. This mission is why we founded StudyPortals, and what continues to drive us forward. Many universities around the world proclaim ‘diversity’ as one of their core virtues. However, diversity was not always a fundamental part of university campuses, particularly in the early days of American elite education. Before reaching the stage of diversity and internationalization that we know today, we needed a movement; and that movement required visionaries, brave leaders, and ambitious followers. In today’s post, I would like to focus on one man in particular, who played a significant role in transforming diversity into a more integral principle in elite education, and who, in the process, overcame several challenges: Kingman Brewster Jr.

Source: Time. Image by: Robert Vickrey.

Kingman Brewster Jr. and his commitment to diversity

Brewster came to symbolize one of the most important reforms to the elite institution admission process (and for higher education itself): opening university admissions to accept minorities and women, expanding and transforming the institutions for years to come. Ultimately, this change to a more meritocratic structure resulted in the cultural inclusiveness that we have all grown to value in universities today. University commitment to diversity starts with people like Kingman Brewster, who deemed democratized admission standards and diverse classrooms vital components in the success of university education.

In the spirit of Brewster, diversity is precisely what should inform the interests of those of us who work in the realm of higher education. After all, as Brewster himself realized, universities can be instrumental in shaping the cultural development of society as a whole. By putting diversity into action and making education available to a global society, we can, therefore, make it not only something that universities say they value; it will become something that universities can ensure.

The interest in international education comes from a belief that social life is enriched through contact with different cultures, traditions, languages, and histories. It’s also increasingly true that universities and businesses have started to recognize the value and benefit they can gain from a more diverse pool of candidates.

If we are to take any page from Brewster’s book, we are poised to see the potential that he saw in his students at Yale. He noticed that a university’s academic value was far more important than its symbolic (financial) value; and that if we welcome students based on their merit, rather than based on their heritage alone, then we open ourselves to new talent, more ideas, and higher academic achievements.

The continued development of international education for a multicultural society requires a similar conviction, and we must claim it as steadfastly as Brewster did. We must welcome the capacity to nurture new talent and student diversity, and do so with as much force and sacrifice as he endured.

We can take as inspiration what Brewster has done for higher education and remember: this is why we do what we do.

Elite universities before Kingman Brewster

Before Brewster’s tenure at Yale — from 1964 to 1977 — the top universities were hallowed spaces, open for the exclusive education of the white male elite: the aristocratic sons of wealthy donors and alumni, and the products of private, preparatory schools. However, after World War II and the breakthrough of Civil Rights movements, society was becoming increasingly more egalitarian and inclusive. Thereafter, universities were sure to follow suit.

In the 1960s, after decades of insularity and a major slump in the economy, admission policies at Harvard and Yale began to democratize, opening their doors to a wider population. As James Traub puts it in a 2005 Slate Article: “Changes in the economy and Cold War competition also turned brain-power into a precious resource, thus changing the social definition of merit.”

Yet, these changes were not universally embraced, and were often met with hostility from the powerful alumni who resisted the changes and felt threatened by the progressively democratizing education.

Source: Wikipedia Old Yale Campus

Bringing new talent to Yale

During the years of the Vietnam war and, at the same time, dramatic changes in the Civil Rights movement, Brewster emerged as one of the outspoken figures of the anti-war Left and one of the stewards of equal rights, particularly within the university.

From the 1930s until the 1960s, Yale University was committed to distinguishing itself as the national institution for securing the values of American society, producing the population of graduates who will continue to lead the country. This was the core ethos behind the pervading admission standards: it was the responsibility of the university to serve the nation with a capable elite.

But, Brewster recognized that the admission tactics at the time came at the expense of a large portion of the U.S. population. By sealing off and closing the admission to these institutions, universities are not only abandoning women and minority groups; they are also themselves losing the potential for high academic and intellectual value. So, in this sense, universities were not serving the nation in the best way possible.

For Brewster, sacrificing the interests of the Yale alumni — as well as the financial support of their endowments — was necessary for what was at stake. A changing political and social landscape required a more forward-thinking — dare I say, progressive — reform to the education system. As William Deresiewicz points out in his book Excellent Sheep, “Brewster had demolished the old system at a single blow”. 1965 — “the year of Brewster’s revolution” — also inaugurated a major pivot in college admissions, “from the old aristocracy to the new meritocracy: from caste, ‘character’, and connections to scores and grades”.

What took its place was a system that relies less on heredity, class, and privilege, and more on maximizing the intellectual value of the institutions (and, in turn, the nation). Despite the ambivalence toward ‘affirmative action’ in the U.S., it is nevertheless true that the more egalitarian policies within and beyond the university system provided a meaningful foundation for diversifying the work force. Brewster and his cohorts paid a huge political price; but I think we can all agree that it was worth it in the long-term.

The long-term view in higher education

Today, millions of students take advantage of the reforms that Brewster made at Yale. Admissions are now available to all students in the world who can prove their merit, based on their academic achievements and scholarly abilities. As a result, schools like Yale and other institutions continue to usher in well-performing, highly intelligent students on a global scale, thereby diversifying their classrooms and connecting the world through education.

Not only does diversity in education impact the world on a societal level; it can have a massive boost within a nation’s economy. According to NAFSA’s latest report, one million international students who studied in the U.S. during the 2015–16 academic year contributed $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy. The economic impact of this translates into a support of more than 400,000 jobs — a 7% increase from the previous year.

Source: NAFSA fact sheet

There is still much work to be done. Again, if we are to remember what Brewster envisioned for the world, we realize that diversity is something that universities can achieve if they open their halls and classrooms to a wider population. The admission process is an important piece of the larger system; but students also ought to have access to and information about their study options. They ought to feel empowered to find the best educational options on a global scale. This is what StudyPortals commits to; helping students write their own educational story, without borders, and allowing universities to reach the best of the world’s talent.


Making study choice transparent, globally.


Written by


Co-Founder of StudyPortals. Making Education Choice Transparent Globally


Making study choice transparent, globally.

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