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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — NEARLY a century ago, Harvard had a big problem: Too many Jews. By 1922, Jews accounted for 21.5 percent of freshmen, up from 7 percent in 1900 and vastly more than at Yale or Princeton. In the Ivy League, only Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania had a greater proportion of Jews.
Harvard’s president, A. Lawrence Lowell, warned that the “Jewish invasion” would “ruin the college.” He wanted a cap: 15 percent. When faculty members balked, he stacked the admissions process to achieve the same result. Bolstered by the nativism of the time, which led to sharp immigration restrictions, Harvard’s admissions committee began using the euphemistic criteria of “character and fitness” to limit Jewish enrollment. As the sociologist Jerome Karabel hasdocumented, these practices worked for the next three decades to suppress the number of Jewish students.
A similar injustice is at work today, against Asian-Americans. To get into the top schools, they need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers. In 2008, over half of all applicants to Harvard with exceptionally high SAT scores were Asian, yet they made up only 17 percent of the entering class (now 20 percent). Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in America, but their proportion of Harvard undergraduates has been flat for two decades.
A new lawsuit filed on behalf of Asian-American applicants offers strong evidence that Harvard engages in racial “balancing.” Admissions numbers for each racial and ethnic group have remained strikingly similar, year to year. Damningly, those rare years in which an unusually high number of Asians were admitted were followed by years in which especially few made the cut.
The most common defense of the status quo is that many Asian-American applicants do well on tests but lack intangible qualities like originality or leadership. As early as 1988, William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, said that they were “slightly less strong on extracurricular criteria.”
Even leaving aside the disturbing parallel with how Jews were characterized, there is little evidence that this is true. A new study of over 100,000 applicants to the University of California, Los Angeles, found no significant correlation between race and extracurricular achievements.
The truth is not that Asians have fewer distinguishing qualities than whites; it’s that — because of a longstanding depiction of Asians as featureless or even interchangeable — they are more likely to be perceived as lacking in individuality. (As one Harvard admissions officer noted on the file of an Asian-American applicant, “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.”)
The contribution Jews made to American life in the decades after they were maligned as unoriginal, grasping careerists speaks for itself. There is no reason to believe that today’s Asian-Americans will leave less of a mark.
For all the historical parallels, there’s one big difference. In the days of Lowell, Harvard was a bastion of white Protestant elites. Anti-Semitism was rampant. Today, Harvard is a patchwork of ethnicities and religions; 15 percent of students are the first in their families to attend college. In seven years as a student and teacher at Harvard, I have never heard anyone demean Asian-Americans.
So why is the new discrimination tolerated? For one thing, many academics assume that higher rates of admission for Asian-Americans would come at the price of lower rates of admission for African-Americans. Opponents of affirmative action — including the Project on Fair Representation, which helped bring the new suit — like to link the two issues, but they are unrelated.
As recognized by the Supreme Court, schools have an interest in recruiting a “critical mass” of minority students to obtain “the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” This justifies, in my view, admissions standards that look favorably on underrepresented groups, like African-Americans and Latinos. But it can neither explain nor justify why a student of Chinese, Korean or Indian descent is so much less likely to be admitted than a white one.
Conservatives point to Harvard’s emphasis on enrolling African-Americans (currently 12 percent of freshmen) and Hispanics (13 percent) but overlook preferences for children of alumni (about 12 percent of students) and recruited athletes (around 13 percent). The real problem is that, in a meritocratic system, whites would be a minority — and Harvard just isn’t comfortable with that.
Admission to elite colleges is a scarce good. Deciding who gets an offer inescapably involves trade-offs among competing values. Do we make excellence the only criterion — and, if so, excellence in what? Should we allocate places to those students who will profit most from them? Or to those who are most likely to give back to the community?
There isn’t one right answer. But that does not mean that there aren’t some answers that are unambiguously wrong.
It’s perfectly fair to consider extracurriculars as an important factor in admissions. But the current system is so opaque that it is easy to conceal discrimination behind vague criteria like “intangible qualities” or the desire for a “well-rounded class.” These criteria were used to exclude an overachieving minority in the days of Lowell, and they serve the same purpose today. For reasons both legal and moral, the onus is on the schools to make their admissions criteria more transparent — not to use them as fig leaves for excluding some students simply because they happen to be Asian.