A half century of service at Harvard
David Evans set to retire after recruiting generations of students
On its face, the employment proposition a Harvard admissions officer put to David Evans seemed far-fetched: leave a prestigious job working at NASA and take a pay cut to come to Cambridge and work at Harvard College.
Evans, the son of sharecroppers, had earned engineering degrees from Tennessee State University and Princeton University and was working on the Saturn-Apollo project at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama space flight center.
But while Evans enjoyed his work at NASA, the state of the newly-integrated school system in Huntsville troubled him. The black schools had been closed down and many of the black students who were now attending white schools were dropping out or failing in the predominantly white schools to which they had been assigned.
“When I saw what was happening, I said, ‘I can do something,’” Evans recalls.
Evans began tutoring students and helping them get into colleges. The fourth of seven children, he and his siblings had been inculcated with the importance of getting a good education, and all graduated from college. He wanted the same for the students with whom he was now working.
Between 1966 and 1969, he helped place students at Princeton, Dartmouth, Hampshire, Amherst, Columbia, Brown, Morehouse and other prestigious colleges and universities. The offer from Harvard — to take a two-year leave of absence and help the university diversify its student body — seemed like a small side-track from a promising career in engineering.
“I said, ‘I’m an engineer,’” Evans says, recalling his conversation with the Harvard admissions officer. “He said, ‘I’m a medical doctor.’ I said, ‘I’m a country boy.’ He said, ‘Me too.’ Every time I offered a card, he matched it.”
Evans left for Harvard in 1970. Now, 50 years later, as Evans is preparing to retire as a senior admissions officer from Harvard, he has been recognized with the prestigious Harvard Award.
He has served as an assistant dean of freshman, an advisor to first-year students and an advisor to the Harvard Foundation, and has mentored generations of Harvard students. In 2003, a group of black Harvard alumni announced a scholarship fund in Evans’ name and set a target of $250,000. In three years, the fund soared to over $1 million.
As Evans prepares to retire, he faces an America in a moment similar to when he took the job in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — with unrest in cities and soul-searching among many in positions of power.
“It was not too far away from what we have today,” he said.
While the Harvard student body is just 41 percent white today, in the class of 1973, the first class for which Evans recruited students, blacks, Asians and Latinos made up less than 10 percent of the student body.
Yet in moving from its previous goals of one or two students per year to more than 100, Evans says the admissions department did not have to bend its standards to admit more blacks, because the college has an abundance of qualified applicants.
“Eighty-five percent of our applicant pool can do the work at Harvard, and yet we admit four percent,” he says. “We pay special attention to students from local public schools, but we’re not changing the standards.”
In the early years, Evans says, it wasn’t always easy for black students on campus.
“It was not unusual for students to be mistaken for janitors or stopped by the police,” he said. “We understood that we couldn’t just integrate the student body. We had to integrate the whole university. It’s an ongoing task, but it’s much better than it used to be.”
Much of the work Evans has put in at Harvard has been well beyond the job description. He helped usher in the first numerically significant wave of black students and helped the university become more responsive to the needs of the black, Latino and Asian members of the student body who are there now.
Sometimes, Evans says, he forgets how much the university has changed in the 50 years he’s worked there.
“You have to remind yourself you consciously and unconsciously adapt to things and take them for granted,” he says. “That the kinds of things you’re seeing now on campus are the result of many years of effort. Even though you were involved, you forget.”