The Reproduction of Social Elites by Elite Universities

What is elite? How elite is Brown? What makes Brown an elite university?

The label elite indicates a certain distinction from the mass and almost always implies superiority and exclusivity. Inequity is the basis for the existence of an elite class because the elite class cannot exist without a lower class. Scott (2008) argues that an elite is someone who has the power to make others, the “subaltern” or subordinate agents, to do something or the power to accomplish something because they are afforded the capability and potential to do so. Therefore, to study the elites and the institutions that created them or created by them is to study the unequal distribution of power and control over resources in society (Khan 2009). Khan (2009) has also outlined how five different resources have been mobilized for and by the elites: political, economic, cultural, social networks and knowledge. In general, the elite university and social elites participate in a mutual, mostly-closed relationship in which the maintenance or increase in power and control of resources of one will likely affect the other in similar manners.

Compared to the holy Ivy League trinity Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Brown is considered as less politically powerful. There are couple of reasons for this observation. The lack of a law school to pipeline students into elite legislative and judicial positions is one. The significantly smaller endowment is another. The smaller and less impactful alumni and social network is another (due to its lack of economic and political prowess). However, the final reason is probably the most important: some of the cultural products and knowledge that Brown students produce are often labelled as radical leftist and politically correct, and hence these resources are considered to be worthless or substandard. As a result, Brown has the reputation of being “hippie,” which is looked down upon by the political and social elites that hold influential positions in society. The social justice bend and focus on inequity by Brown students are often mistakenly criticized as attacks on free speech by the same powerful elites that these students seek to criticize for their roles in creating and maintaining injustice and inequity.

Among the Ivy League and Ivy League Plus colleges (e.g. Stanford, Duke), Brown has the highest median parent income, the 2nd highest share of students from the top one percent (19% of students’ have families that make more than $630,000 a year) and ranks 9th out of 11 when it comes to chance a poor student has to become a rich adult (The New York Times, 2017). Brown also have more students in the top fifth (> $110,000/year) at 70%, than students at the bottom fifth (< $20,000) at 4.1% (The New York Times, 2017). It is ironic that Brown attracts students from high-income families even though the school has the reputation of being “hippie,” “activist” and anti-capitalist to a certain extent. Unless the open curriculum has such a tremendous allure, the most likely explanation of this irony is that many rich students come here expecting to become allies to the underprivileged and the oppressed while clinging to their class privilege. This irony also implies the belief that the “concentration of privilege is more of a problem than privilege itself” (Kenway and Langmead, 2017). Appropriating the liberation narrative of minority activists, these elite students seek to “venture out of their comfort zones,” become an “activist” or “ally” while at it, and fall back onto the safety net of their family if needed. Brown University itself uses the liberation and non-conformity narrative to attract students from high-earning families at the expense of low-income and minority students. Both the school and its elite students participate in the whitewashing or disavowal of their class status and power in favor of a more egalitarian façade (Kenway and Langmead, 2017). They strive to be “elite” but not “elitist” (Kenway and Langmead, 2017). In a way, Brown’s eliteness is due to the activists’ liberation and non-conformity narrative that gave the school cultural capital in its competition with other elite schools.

Caption: Brown University students are among the richest students in the Ivy League colleges as well as Ivy Plus colleges (Stanford, MIT, Duke, University of Chicago).
Source: “Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at Brown University,” by the New York Times.

Globalization, Cosmopolitanism and Diversity in the Context of the University

Cosmopolitanism is defined as “the an orientation of openness to foreign others and cultures” (Igarashi and Saito, 2014). Most American universities embrace a version of cosmopolitanism in their mission and curriculum by advocating for metrics such as diversity, multiculturalism and inclusiveness. At first glance, cosmopolitanism seems to be a commendable concept because of the apparent paradigmatic shift from an exclusionary policy that promotes nationalism and social domination to a more inclusive policy that emphasizes the common humanity in all (Igarashi and Saito, 2014): the university is now open to different races, nationalities, religions, cultures and other formerly excluded identities. According to Igarashi and Saito, cosmopolitanism has been institutionalized by the university and cultural competence is now a marker of academic excellence. Their main critique of cosmopolitanism is that cultural competency, far from being a means to reduce global inequality, is being used for the purposes of domination and (neo)colonialism. In other words, study other cultures so that we are smarter than those people and in case of a struggle over control and power, we are advantaged because we know them even better than they know themselves. Historically, this was the case of knowledge produced about the Global South, most of which served the purposes of helping the colonizers to fare better in a new environment and to subdue the locals. Increase in enrollment of international students and certain racial minority groups have increased white American students’ exposure to different cultures. However, as noted by Kenway and Langmead (2017), the increase in diversity is usually in nationality, race, culture and religion rather than class. International students who come to American schools are usually from more economically privileged backgrounds and attended English-speaking schools. Therefore, cosmopolitanism’s hidden intention might be to link transnational elites and expand the upper echelon network rather than reducing inequity and oppression of the subalterns. In an increasingly globalized world, the old traditional elites cannot help but open their gates to more minority elites. It would be interesting to see whether these new elites are truly accepted or that were simply being used (out of necessity) by the traditional elites to advance their own interests. This is exactly the ambiguous nature of cosmopolitanism: despite the apparent shift to a humanity discourse, the underlying discourse is still centered around nationalism, racial supremacy and nation-state building instead of disrupting this perennial order.

New Elites and The Transformation of the “Others” into Elites

Different students may have different levels of “otherness” in the eye of the ruling elites and it is all about intersectionality. For instance, international students from China and India, the two most represented countries at Brown, who come from privileged backgrounds might find  themselves treated differently because of their races and nationalities but find class affinity to other white students from similar upper economic tiers. Furthermore, these international students might be labelled as “elitist but not so elite” by the traditional gatekeeper elite peers (Kenway and Langmead 2017). Most of the wealth in these countries are new wealth- that is, self-made, unlike the generational wealth in the US and many European countries (Khan, 2009). Zanten (2014) argues that historically America’s old money families have sought to consolidate themselves by adopting the British and French model of the “leisure class” that places emphasis on social life and sports in order to separate the old privileges from the upstarts. Since many elite Asian families, both domestic and international, have new and developing social connections and sports (at least American ones like football and baseball) often do not occupy a significant position in their lives, their new wealth, despite being able to rival that of the traditional elites, cannot earn them membership in that “elite” group. The picture is complicated when elite black students are introduced. Some scholars have argued that elite Asian students are undergoing the process of “whitening,” in which their class privileges facilitate their incorporation into the same category as their white peers. However, for black elite students, their race is too much of a negative and it overtakes their class status.

By attracting elite members across the globe, the elite university is sending the message that it has significant resources and power on a transnational stage. It also signals to the traditional elites in the US that it has the ability to expand their network of global financial venture. However, these traditional elites has disproportionate power and influence in their international network. The question of whether elite international students and minorities can make an impression on the network in the US still rests on the degree in which they are being accepted. Given the obsession with stratification, there is no reason to believe that the traditional elites will welcome new minority elites with open arms.

Using this frame of analysis, the shortcoming of race-based affirmative action is that it attempts to increase racial diversity without diversifying class. The ultimate premise behind affirmative action is the “multiplying effect,” in which schools hope that by training more racial minority students, they will then go back and serve their own community  and ultimately uplift the entire race (Brest and Oshige, 1995). However, there is no telling whether increase in racial diversity without class diversity will result in more minority students becoming more accustomed to being around their upper class peers and becoming averted to poor members of their own racial group.

However, there is no guarantee either that low-income minority students once graduate will not become too elite. Beside preserving the existing social order, in particular the position of the elites, elite universities also pride themselves on being the engine of social mobility for underserved, low-income students. A common topic of discussion on Brown campus is the ethics of low-income students going to into the finance sector. On one side, the criticism is that these students are sellouts and complicit in a system that created inequality in the first place. On the other side, many are empathetic to low-income students wanting to get out of poverty and support their families. Some middle ground can be found here: once graduated from an elite university, most students, including low-income, formerly non-elite students, will be in a privileged and powerful position no matter what and it is up to them to use that power and privilege responsibly and conscientiously. Low-income students who enter the private or finance sectors must not lose sight of the fact that their coerced complicity does not absolved them from actively critiquing and reforming the structures of power from which they are benefiting.

The Shifting Definition of Elite

Recent debates around affirmative action have sparked the idea in some corners that maybe it is time to have an Asian majority in universities. In many schools, including Brown, the percentage of white students have dipped below 50% to around 40%. However, at some elite public universities like UCLA and UC Berkley, there are fewer white students compared to Asian/Pacific Islander students. The number of Asian students certainly increase when accounting for the number of international students, many of whom are from East Asian countries. It is unlikely that we will see the number of Asian students at the Ivy League get much higher than 20% without an explicit ruling of the court against affirmative action. In the scenario that this happens, the surplus of Asian representation (compared to the US demographic) is likely to decrease the school’s degree of elitism. The reason is that white supremacy will likely redefine what it means to be excellent, successful and hence elite. New metrics such as creativity, charisma, personality and imaginative are becoming more prized compared to hard work and merit in order to augment the success of whites while downplaying the success of Asians. Elite, therefore, will correlate to the number of white students, which correlates to the sense of nostalgia and history that many of these elite institutions so effectively use as a marking tool. In other words, Harvard, the most accoladed and elite institution of them all (even more so than Stanford who has a lower acceptance rate), will not be Harvard if there are too many Asians.


Written by Huy Nguyen