Colorlines — The U.S. Department of Education announced it will open an
investigation into Harvard and Princeton’s admissions practices after receiving
a discrimination complaint from a South Asian student who was at the top of his
high school class but was denied by those schools, Bloomberg reported.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights received the complaint in
August of 2011 and is merging their inquiry with a similar 2006 complaint made
by Jian Li, an Asian-American student who was denied acceptance to Harvard, but
later enrolled at Yale. The claim is that deserving Asian-American students are
being passed over because of their race.
The inquiry is no indication that the claims have merit, the Department of
Education has said.
For some, the new complaints smack of the snobby whining of highly privileged
Asian-American students who feel entitled to acceptance to their first-choice
school. But for many of the same people, the new complaints revive memories of a
scandal in the 1980s and 1990s involving UC Berkeley, Stanford and other Ivy
League universities which actually were discriminating against Asian-American
students, forcing them to score higher than their peers in order to be admitted
to these highly selective schools. It ignited anger among many; stories about
higher education admissions are fundamentally about fairness and schools’
publicly stated commitments to diverse and well-integrated schools.
The two pursuits can seem to be at odds with each other and the implicit
message, advocates explain, is often that more deserving Asian-American students
are being pushed out in favor of less-deserving black and Latino students.
Anxieties about the discrimination of Asian Americans in higher education
admissions are often used to mask an anti-affirmative action argument. Experts
say the two issues need to be put in separate boxes.
“Negative action is what was the basis of the cases 20 years ago and that’s
what’s being alleged in these current cases,” said Khin Mai Aung, director of
the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education
Negative action, which Aung explained as being based on “a feeling,” should not
be confused with affirmative action, “which is a legal way that folks from
underrepresented communities, which can be defined in a lot of ways, are given
beneficial consideration” in a process that is holistic and by no means
If it turns out that Asian-American students are being held to a higher
standard, that would have nothing to do with affirmative action policies
designed to increase the diversity of an incoming class, Aung said.
Both Harvard and Princeton deny that they discriminate against Asian Americans
in their admissions processes.
“Harvard College does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants,”
Harvard spokesperson Jim Neal said. “Our review of every applicant’s file is
highly individualized and holistic, as we give serious consideration to all of
the information we receive and all of the ways in which the candidate might
contribute to our vibrant educational environment and community.”
While university spokespeople maintain that they review every applicant’s
profile on an individual and holistic basis, the truth is that admissions
officers are trying to put together a well-rounded incoming class. There is
undoubtedly an ideally diverse student population universities attempt to
foster, based on a student’s race, gender, class, their parents’ alumni status,
geographic distribution, involvement in sports or music. Private schools are
allowed to keep their admissions rubrics and acceptance data private. The
danger, advocates say, is that concerns about diversity may be a convenient way
of hiding discrimination against Asian-Americans.
“The arguments schools are setting forth for what appears to be disparate
treatment of APIs aren’t all that different from when I was working on this in
the 1980s,” said Grace Tsuang Yuan, the author of a 1989 law review article
providing a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the admissions processes of elite
Yuan documented disparate acceptance rates for Asian-American students and white
students. Asian-Americans, despite applying to Harvard, Stanford, Brown and UC
Berkeley at increasing rates, were being admitted at lower rates than white
students. Officials told Yuan that Asian-Americans were wonderful test-takers
but tended to be one-dimensional candidates with an otherwise “flat profile.”
“I always wanted to ask, ‘What do you mean ‘flat’? Are you referring to the
shape of my nose?‘”
Yuan found that even when it came to non-academic criteria, like students’
intended majors and their extracurricular activities and highly subjective
“personal ratings,” Asian-American students were given lower ratings than their
white counterparts. Internal reviews at Brown University found that
Asian-American applicants were given lower personal rating scores, due to the
“cultural biases and stereotypes which prevail in the admissions office.”
Now, 23 years later and with identical complaints of discrimination surfacing
but data a tightly held secret, Yuan says it’s time for Ivy Leagues and other
elite schools to open their books.
“I am a strong proponent for the idea that institutions should look at the whole
profile of the candidate,” Yuan said. “But I am opposed to the notion that
diversity should be used to mask the biases of an admissions officer.”
Aung said, “The key thing is if,” and she repeatedly stressed the if, “Asians
are being required to score higher than white students, and I do specifically
mean white kids because that’s the crux of the discrimination, then that amounts
to affirmative action for white kids.”
At this point, arguments about possible discrimination are pure speculation.
“This is one complaint by one individual,” said Dana Takagi, a professor of
ethnic studies at University of California at Santa Cruz. “That, that gives me
“We should always be concerned and watchful about places where there might be
unconscious or conscious forms of bias, but I don’t know that this is one of
those places,” Takagi said.
Asian-American education experts urge caution, and also, say that these sorts of
highly emotional stories can be distracting.
“These kids who end up at these elite institutions or are suing really come from
the top 1 percent of Asian Americans,” Oiyan Poon, a former admissions officer
and education researcher at UCLA said. “It’s not the majority experience.”
Indeed, more than 40 percent of Asian Americans who are enrolled in any
institution of higher education are enrolled in community colleges.
Nevertheless, stories about Asian-Americans muscling their way to the top of the
U.S. education system continue to have great narrative appeal that, Poon says,
speaks to the country’s desire to imagine that we live in an era where race
doesn’t matter anymore.
“People really love colorblind rhetoric and Asian-Americans present a
counter-narrative against other people of color’s traditional civil rights
claims of discrimination,” Poon said.
“It goes back to anti-affirmative action advocates’ rhetoric that
discrimination and racism don’t exist because they can say, ‘Look at these
Asians. The only kind of racism that exists is reverse racism.‘”
By Julianne Hing
Read the article at Colorlines >