‘Poison Ivy’ Author Evan Mandery: ‘Virtually Certain’ Supreme Court Will End Affirmative Action At Universities

Harvard University is at the center of a Supreme Court case that could end affirmative action at U.S. universities. Courtesy photo

On Halloween 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a pair of cases that threaten to end affirmative action as practiced by colleges and universities for nearly five decades.

The lead case, Students for Fair Admissions, alleges that Harvard University disadvantages Asian-American applicants through subjective admission standards that effectively create a ceiling for them in admissions. In the second case, this one against the University of North Carolina, plaintiffs argue that the school gives preference to Black, Hispanic, and Native American students and thus discriminate against white and Asian applicants.

While the Supreme Court’s decision isn’t expected until June, Evan Mandery, a professor at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argues the Harvard case is a crisis of its own making.

“How can the university defend ‘affirmative action’ for poor students of color while aggressively engaging in affirmative action for affluent Whites?’ Mandery asks in a CNN op ed on the issue.


Mandery’s latest book, “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us,’ documents a damning history of how Ivy League schools, like Harvard, and other elite colleges have helped develop and maintain an economic system in the United States that works to keep the rich rich while building barriers to economic mobility for the poor.

“Who goes to Wharton, and Tuck, and Harvard Business School makes a huge difference on national policy in the same way that who goes to Harvard Law School and Penn Law School makes a huge difference,” Mandery tells Poets&Quants.

“I think when you look at the boards of these institutions, they are so disproportionately white and old that it’s easy to see why they are conservative in the traditional sense: They reinforce the status quo and they’re resistant to change. Diversifying the elite has long term policy implications. At a moment in history when I think anybody who’s paying attention is really worried about the future of democracy, I think these institutions have not done their bit, and they need to start doing it right away.”

In ‘Poison Ivy,’ published October 25 by The New Press, Mandery argues how the path to admission to elite colleges – and the opportunities that come out of those schools – is overwhelmingly available only to the wealthy, despite what the schools like to claim. Poets&Quants spoke to the author – who earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University – about admission policies that favor athletes, donors, and alums at the expense of less affluent students and how he expects the Supreme Court will rule in the affirmative action cases it is now considering. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the idea for ‘Poison Ivy’ come from?

Evan Mandery

The book is kind of the product of my life’s experience. My parents are both CUNY graduates, and I’ve taught at the City University of New York for the past 23 years.

I went to Harvard both for undergraduate and law school, and in some way or another I’ve been thinking about the differences in opportunity for students at those types of institutions my whole life. The immediate kind of impetus was having dinner with a friend who had also gone to Harvard, and with a very similar class background: Both of his parents were teachers as mine are, but I was pretty skeptical about Harvard and he was more supportive. He cited the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative which, at the time, the trigger was $65,000 or less. And I said that’s generous, but begs the question of how many people Harvard lets in who come from families making less than $65,000? Which was more than the median income in the United States at the time.

With your background, did you get any help when you went to Harvard?

I got no help. I tell the story in the book: I won a scholarship, which I now know traces its history to James Conant, who was a Harvard president, who oversaw the creation of the SAT. It was a program that was designed for middle class Midwesterners, but by the time I got it, it offered no money and wasn’t for Midwesterners.

When did you really start working on the book, and why was this the right time?

There were some steps. I got an op ed published in The New York Times about seven years ago arguing against legacy preference. That led me to write a long piece for Huffington Post, which, at the time, still had curated content, and it was why I wasn’t gonna go to my 25th reunion.

I would say, during Operation Varsity Blues, my reaction was that people tried to commit fraud, but that the system treated those pathways as legitimate in the first place. I definitely found the argument was percolating the zeitgeist. I’ve read nearly every book in this space now. There are several books lamenting the construct of meritocracy, but very few authors point the finger at specific institutions. But it’s not like the construct of meritocracy comes out of the ether; these colleges foster it by saying that they admit the best and the brightest.

I gather some of your argument is that the best and the brightest usually comes from the resources of the richest.

Correct. I mean, almost every putatively objective metric that they rely upon and admissions are correlated highly with wealth. When people talk about ALDC tips (athletes, legacy applicants, applicants on the Dean’s Interest List and children of Harvard staff), those pathways are basically completely foreclosed to anyone other than the rich. A huge part of Harvard’s class, 30% of students, are ALDC.

You argue that the Ivies and these very expensive private institutions are actually a barrier to broad social and economic mobility. Why do you think that?

They’re economically consequential. So, elite colleges, and there’s no data on prep schools, but we can be pretty confident that they produce a lot of class stability, like an insurance policy against falling out of the upper class. They’re also basically the exclusive promoter of a certain type of top end mobility. Goldman Sachs and McKinsey and elite law firms are drawing exclusively from people who went to these schools. Those jobs, while maybe relatively small in numbers, have a massive impact on American policy. I draw a straight line between Trump’s exploitation of mistrust of the elites, and the fact that access to the elite is effectively foreclosed for large portions of society. They’re just not going to be able to get into those institutions, or afford those institutions.

The federal Ivy League antitrust exemption expired September 30. Explain what this means and why it is important.

It’s a little bit of an esoteric issue. The need-blind colleges (colleges where students are not to be disadvantaged in the undergraduate admissions process due to their financial need) were allowed to collaborate on their methodologies for determining need. So, they didn’t compare the names of students and their financial aid packages, but they collaborated on the thresholds that they would use to make offers.

The Department of Justice had an antitrust investigation going back into the 1980s. All of the schools settled except for MIT, which took the case to trial. Ultimately, the DOJ in the Clinton administration reached a settlement with MIT which was later codified into law. This is what survived up until the beginning of the month. This allowed them to discuss their methodologies for determining need.

What was the law trying to accomplish?

That’s the better question. What the elite colleges say is that they only have a fixed pot of money, and if you don’t let them collude, they’re going to end up competing to give financial aid packages to middle class students to try to attract them. I think two thirds of non governmental financial aid in the United States is paid out as merit aid, so it’s not going to the poor. It’s going to the middle class and upper middle class and, of course, that’s scandalous.

There’s some debate about this. So if you think that Harvard and Yale and Princeton only have a fixed pot of money, then allowing them to collude as to who they’re going to pay it to directs the existing pot of money to more needy kids. But there’s a lawsuit which is ongoing – and the lawsuit survives the expiration of antitrust exemption – and they argued that the schools have tons of money and what it’s really doing is driving down the total amount of money that they spend on financial aid.

NEXT PAGE: What schools are doing with their huge endowments + How will the Supreme Court rule?