The U.S. Supreme court has ruled, and sustained, the use of race as an admissions criterion for colleges and universities as a tool for increasing ethnic diversity. The stipulation, though, is that there cannot be racial quotas, and that there cannot be policies that “consciously aim at racial balancing.” This summary comes from today’s New York Times op-ed below (click on screenshot), and it confuses me. There’s also a related article in last August’s New Yorker by Jeannie Suk Gersen, an Asian-American professor at Harvard’s Law School (click on screenshot). Both take up the issue of Harvard’s historical discrimination against Asian-American applicants, which of course is related to racial balancing.
I am in favor of affirmative action to rectify the historical discrimination against underrepresented and oppressed minorities, though the ultimate goal should be to eliminate affirmative action, accepting people solely on the basis of their achievements, interests, and other things that make for a good student body. That, however, would require everyone to be given equal educational opportunity from the outset, so that nobody is disadvantaged by historical circumstances or poor life situations. And we’re ages away from that in America. And even then I’m not 100% sure that race or gender should be ignored, for even under equal opportunity there may be advantages of diversity that would outweigh a purely meritocratic approach.
What I don’t understand about the New York Times characterization of the law is that it seems to forbid “conscious aims at racial balancing”—yet that is exactly what colleges are doing. To try to keep student bodies diverse, Hispanic and African-American applicants are admitted with lower grade-point averages and test scores than are whites and Asians, with Asians facing the highest bar since they excel in qualifications on paper. Yang’s article gives the data:
The Asian-American population has more than doubled over the last 20 years, yet the Asian-American share in the student populations at Harvard has remained frozen. Harvard has maintained since the 1980s, when claims of anti-Asian discrimination in Ivy League admissions first surfaced, that there is no racial bias against Asian-Americans once you control the preferences offered to athletes and alumni.
The discovery process in this case has demonstrated that this claim is no longer supportable.
Mr. Arcidiacono found that an otherwise identical applicant bearing an Asian-American male identity with a 25 percent chance of admission would have a 32 percent chance of admission if he were white, a 77 percent chance of admission if he were Hispanic, and a 95 percent chance of admission if he were black. A report from Harvard’s own Office of Institutional Research found that even after alumni and athletic preferences were factored in, Asians would be accepted at a rate of 26 percent, versus the 19 percent at which they were actually accepted. That report, commissioned back in 2013, was summarily filed away, with no further investigation or action taken.
Were Asian-Americans admitted on the basis of academic achievement and extracurricular activities alone, regardless of ethnicity, Harvard would have a near-majority Asian student body (43%), something that Gersen says is undesirable. Rather, she says, “we should not want the composition of our elite universities to be wildly out of proportion to the racial composition of our country.” Readers can weigh in on that sentiment below, but in general I agree with it—diversity is a good thing. But not just diversity of race, but also diversity of thought, social class, ideology, and personality and interests.
But to keep the proportion of Asians down, since they are high achievers and also consciously engage in those crucial extracurricular activities that make one look “well rounded,” Harvard has engaged in an odious charade—one that they try to keep secret.
It can no longer be kept secret, though, since a lawsuit was filed against Harvard claiming that it discriminates against Americans of Asian descent. Harvard fought hard to avoid giving information on its admissions policies, but it finally had to as part of the discovery process. And what was revealed was a systematic downgrading of Asian’s personality scores compared to whites, blacks, and Hispanics. This of course plays into the stereotype of Asians as robotic grade-grinders who don’t have distinctive personalities. Yang says this:
. . . the Harvard admissions office consistently gave Asian-American applicants low personality ratings — the lowest assigned collectively to any racial group. She did not know that Harvard’s own Office of Institutional Research had found that if the university selected its students on academic criteria alone, the Asian share of the Harvard student body would leap from 19 percent to 43 percent. She did not know that though Asians were consistently the highest academically performing group among Harvard applicants, they earned admission at a rate lower than any other racial group between 2000 and 2019.
All she knew was what she had witnessed as an assistant principal and the single fact that she was shown by her deposers. But perhaps she intuited the rest.
Earlier this month, we learned that a review of more than 160,000 individual student files contained in six years of Harvard’s admissions data found that Asians outperformed all other racial groups on every measure of academic achievement: grades, SAT scores and the most AP exams passed. They had more extracurricular activities than their white counterparts. They were rated by interviewers who had met them as virtually on par with their white counterparts in their personal qualities. Yet Harvard admissions officers, many of whom had never met these applicants, scored them collectively as the worst of all groups in the one area — personality — that was subjective enough to be readily manipulable toThe report by the plaintiff’s expert witness, the Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, revealed that Harvard evaluated applicants on the extent to which they possessed the following traits: likability, helpfulness, courage, kindness, positive personality, people like to be around them, the person is widely respected. Asian-Americans, who had the highest scores in both the academic and extracurricular ratings, lagged far behind all other racial groups in the degree to which they received high ratings on the personality score.
“Asian-American applicants receive a 2 or better on the personal score more than 20% of the time only in the top academic index decile. By contrast, white applicants receive a 2 or better on the personal score more than 20% of the time in the top six deciles,” wrote Mr. Arcidiacono. “Hispanics receive such personal scores more than 20% of the time in the top seven deciles, and African Americans receive such scores more than 20% of the time in the top eight deciles.”
This sounds like a conscious decision by Harvard as a way to keep the number of Asian-American students down. Note that some of the students didn’t even get to show their personalities, via a personal interview, with admissions officers. It’s no surprise, then, that Harvard fought tooth and nail to avoid disclosing it. In fact, as Yang notes, the exact same tactic was used in the past to keep the number of Jewish students down:
Harvard has been here before. “To prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews, I know at present only one way, which is at the same time straightforward and effective,” wrote A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the 1920s, “and that is a selection by a personal estimate of character on the part of the Admission authorities, based upon the probable value to the candidate, to the College and to the community of his admissions.” The opacity of its admissions procedure could veil what Lowell’s written correspondence would later disclose to be a fully intended policy of discrimination.
I’ll add one other thing: Harvard gives preferential admission to “legacies” (relatives of those who attended previously, and of donors) and to rich people, preferences that can outweigh test scores. This is done so Harvard can keep building up its multibillion-dollar endowment. I object to that vehemently, but that’s the way they roll.
This raises a number of questions—not just about Asians, but about racial balancing in general. As I said, I am in favor of affirmative action, but we should be more honest about it: not using “personality denigration” as a way to effect it. But are quotas the answer? I don’t know many people who are comfortable with explicit quotas.
So here are the questions, and readers can weigh in:
1.) Do you favor affirmative action by ethnicity so that college student bodies mirror to some extent the composition of the country as a whole? Or do you think admission should be genetics-blind, based on criteria like scores, grades, and other achievements and activities?
2.) If you favor affirmative action to increase diversity of gender or ethnicity, do you favor increasing diversity of other traits, like social class, ideology, politics, and so on?
3.) If you favor affirmative action, should the goals be in the form of quotas?
4.) Do you agree with Dr. Gersen that we should strive to keep Asian students from dominating the composition of the student body?
5.) If your answer to #4 is “yes”, and Asians score the highest in all criteria save personality, is it ethical to downgrade Asians on personality scores to keep their numbers down? (I myself can’t see this as ethical at all, nor do I believe that Asians are uniform, robotic, and without distinctive personalities. That simply hasn’t been my experience with Asian students here.) Do we then practice anti-affirmative action with Asians?
There are other questions as well, but I’ll stop here. All I know is that the situation is a mess, and difficult to tackle. The only way it would be easy is if you believe in a pure meritocracy—in fact, one in which ethnicity is not even specified in the application. Once you start bringing in diversity as a desirable situation, then you run into trouble, especially in view of the Supreme Court’s ambiguous stand. Those of us who think diversity of multiple traits is a good thing to have in college—after all, what good is a college where you don’t confront different people with different views?—will have to face up to this mess.