Is the Ivy League Fair to Asian Americans?

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An admission officer's uncomfortable explanation for why they don't get in as often as their test scores would predict suggests it's not.

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Are Ivy League institutions discriminating against Asian Americans by limiting how many are admitted? That's the subject of a debate published this week in the New York Times. Let's start with the folks who believe that there's effectively a race-based quota limiting Asian Americans.

Ron Unz makes the most powerful argument for that proposition. "After the Justice Department closed an investigation in the early 1990s into charges that Harvard University discriminated against Asian-American applicants, Harvard's reported enrollment of Asian-Americans began gradually declining, falling from 20.6 percent in 1993 to about 16.5 percent over most of the last decade," he writes. "This decline might seem small. But these same years brought a huge increase in America's college-age Asian population, which roughly doubled between 1992 and 2011, while non-Hispanic white numbers remained almost unchanged. Thus, according to official statistics, the percentage of Asian-Americans enrolled at Harvard fell by more than 50 percent over the last two decades, while the percentage of whites changed little. This decline in relative Asian-American enrollment was actually larger than the impact of Harvard's 1925 Jewish quota, which reduced Jewish freshmen from 27.6 percent to 15 percent."

He goes on:

The percentages of college-age Asian-Americans enrolled at most of the other Ivy League schools also fell during this same period, and over the last few years Asian enrollments across these different universities have converged to a very similar level and remained static over time. This raises suspicions of a joint Ivy League policy to restrict Asian-American numbers to a particular percentage. Meanwhile, the California Institute of Technology follows a highly selective but strictly race-neutral admissions policy, and its enrollment of Asian-Americans has grown almost exactly in line with the growth of the Asian-American population. The last 20 years have brought a huge rise in the number of Asians winning top academic awards in our high schools or being named National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. It seems quite suspicious that none of trends have been reflected in their increased enrollment at Harvard and other top Ivy League universities.

Another debater, S.B. Yoo, asserts that "top colleges have a 'merits-be-damned' approach to limit the number of Asian students. They did that once before -- against Jewish students about a century ago. America's core value of equal opportunity is being trampled. The 14th Amendment on equal protection is trampled upon." That reaction is shared by many Asian Americans if the folks I spoken to over the years in Southern California are even somewhat representative.

I'll inject my voice here.

Growing up in Orange County, California, home to many Asian immigrants and their Asian-American descendants, I've personally seen the way that some white people cloak what is, at bottom, xenophobia and racial insecurity in what they insist are non-racist complaints about how the country club is justified in artificially slowing the pace at which Japanese people join because they are "clannish" and "change the atmosphere;" or how Asian-American kids have an "unfair" advantage over whites in the college admissions game because they're quasi-automatons whose parents oppressively force them to study all weekend long and late into the night. As a Los Angeles-area journalist, I also saw the antagonism some blacks and Latinos bore toward Asian Americans for "taking their neighborhoods," and the attitude among some "community leaders" on all sides that a zero-sum competition for ethnic spoils was ever unfolding.

I presume the average Ivy League college-admissions officer is well-intentioned and against racism. But I don't believe for a minute that those institutions are totally insulated from the attitudes I've referenced, that they aren't subject to subtle pressure from stakeholders who don't want their campuses to be "too Asian," or that, uniquely among Americans, they are capable of taking race into consideration without passing on the country's ever-present prejudices, as every generation of Ivy League admissions officer that preceded them has done.

My doubts are only deepened by the debate entry contributed by Rod M. Bugarin Jr., who "formerly served on admissions and financial aid committees at Hampshire College, Wesleyan University, Brown University and Columbia University." He writes that "because I was one of the few Ivy League admissions officers of Asian descent, I was usually challenged, publicly and privately, about how affirmative action admissions practices were unfair to qualified applicants."

Here's his answer:

Yes, if you considered only test scores, Asian and Asian-American students would seem to be at a disadvantage. But the students who rise to the top of the highly personal and subjective admissions process are those who have submitted the strongest comprehensive applications. From my experience of watching college students learn, grow and develop on elite campuses, I rarely found the skills that are validated by standardized tests to be those that enhance classroom discussions or the interpersonal dynamic when doing research with peers and professors.

It wouldn't bother me if an admissions officer said, "Applicant A had better grades and test scores, but that isn't everything -- Applicant B has showed a propensity for volunteerism, excels interpersonally, and is presently the captain of her sports team, so she gets the last spot." But I can't help but feel uneasy about the passage above. Its clear implication is that while Asian-American students are good at tests, their "interpersonal dynamic" and conversation skills are inferior. In other words, on the most subjective criteria in the admissions process, they just happen to conform to the negative racial stereotypes with which they're associated.

He goes on:   

Policies like affirmative action give admissions officers the liberty to identify those candidates who surpass expectations of what is "qualified," bringing talents, interests, skills and perspectives that make learning in the college community an enriching experience for everyone.

Again, the implication here seems to be that while Asian-American applicants as a group excel at tests, an important factor in admissions, their talents, skills, and other interests tend to be significantly inferior to students of other races, and having them around isn't as enriching for other students. Given what you know about the vagaries of college admissions, do you think that's a rigorously reached conclusion, however uncomfortable, or an echo of the prejudicial stereotypes of Asian Americans that are pervasive in society? If the former, you have more faith in the Ivy League than me. 


"Without practices like affirmative action," Bugarin continues, "admissions officers are constrained to select only those who demonstrate a very narrow set of skills, which is not necessarily what our nation and economy need." Again, is there any reason to think that Asian Americans are more "narrow" in their skills than folks from other groups? And even if it were so, wouldn't it emerge from an admissions regime that took all sorts of things into consideration, but explicitly did not factor an applicant's race into the process?

Race-blind admissions hardly needs to be "narrow" in what it considers.

Affirmative action is a crude tool. So was civil war, which is to say that crude tools have been necessary, in America's past, to advance the cause of racial equality. This is a more nuanced moment.       

As I see it, we know that even well-intentioned people regularly rationalize discriminatory behavior, that society as a whole is often horrified at its own bygone race-based policies, and that race is so fluid in our multi-ethnic society that no one can adequately conceive of all the ways it is changing; knowing these things, prudence dictates acceptance of the fact that humans aren't equipped to fairly take race into consideration. At various times in history, doing so has nevertheless been a necessity. We're lucky that it isn't a necessity now, and that class-based affirmative action would effectively target the most needy racial minorities in a race-blind way. 

To imagine that today's college-admissions officers can step outside the failings of humanity, making subjective judgment calls in secret with racial enlightenment that is unprecedented in human history, is folly. It may have seemed possible and even done more good than harm when America was mostly grappling with black and white. Now that we're asking people to calibrate the "diversity value" of American blacks, Africans, Hispanics, Thais, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, and many more besides? The prudent course is acknowledging the limits of our wisdom. Alas, intellectual humility and restraint are not among the Ivy League's virtues.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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