A recently published analysis in the Students for Fair Admissions’ (SFA) case against Harvard alleged that Harvard intentionally discriminated against Asian-American applicants by systematically rating Asian-American applicants lower on “personal qualities”. Even when interviewers rated applicants highly on personality, admissions officers who has never met the applicants seem to know these Asian-American applicants very well: “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor”, “…scores and application seem so typical of other Asian applications I’ve read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English”, “quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard worker”.
Harvard’s outgoing president Drew Faust has issued a written defense of its admissions policies. Ironically, this “holistic” admissions process started at Harvard about 100 years ago for the specific purpose of discriminating against a different group of applicants — Jews. In The Chosen, Karabel lays out this fascinating slice of Ivy League history.
Up until the early 20th century, the Ivy League was always a place for the social elite rather than intellectual elite. Admissions were based on grades and entrance exams, but the bar wasn’t particularly high. This all changed with the large influx of Jewish immigrants being displaced from Europe. From 1900–1925, Jewish students went from 7% to 27.6% of the Harvard student population. After attending a Harvard-Yale game, one distraught alumnus wrote to then Harvard President Lowell, “There were Jews to the right of me…Jews to the left of me…” and begged Lowell to “bring Harvard back to the position it always held as a ‘white man’s’ college?”
In response, Lowell came up with an ingenious method to reduce Jewish admissions using a system centered around “selection by a personal estimate of character on the part of the Admissions authorities.” Thus began Harvard’s “holistic” admissions process. This new admissions process immediately reduced Jewish admissions by almost half in a single year. And wouldn’t be until after World War II that things began to get better. Today Jews account for roughly 1.4% of the US population and accounts for around 25% of the Ivy League student body.
Given this history, it’s no wonder some have said that “Asians are the new Jews”. Asian-American enrollment doubled from ~10% to ~20% when the DOE OCR started an investigation into alleged discrimination against Asians in 1988. And when the investigation closed, the Asian numbers dropped back down to around 16% and would stay very stable for about 20 years. And to make matters worse, during the same period of time, the number of Asian-Americans increased by more than 200%.
Harvard’s admissions policies are nefarious because it discriminates against Asian-Americans. Its defense of those policies are even worse and tries to pit Asian-Americans against other underrepresented minorities. In her letter, Drew Faust tries to pit the SFA case against Harvard’s goal for campus diversity. Others have gone after Edward Blum because he’s lead many important cases on affirmative action. This is absolutely a false narrative. In the Chosen, Karabel stated that in the original 1990s OCR investigation, discrimination against Asian-Americans was linked to preference for children of donors, alumni, and faculty and not linked to racial preferences. Indeed, Harvard’s incoming freshman class is 30% legacy. This is explicitly stated in SFA’s case document, along with other race-neutral methods that would both increase campus diversity and meet the legal standards set in precedents like Bakke and Bollinger.
I graduated high school in 2001 and I was extremely grateful to have been admitted to Harvard (I chose MIT instead). In 2035 my son Jiaxu will be graduating from high school. If the status quo continues, it will be 4x as hard for him to be admitted to Harvard. As I listen to him babbling and laughing beside me, I know that admissions to HYP is not necessary for him to live a great life. What I want, more than anything else, is for the world to look on him as an individual and not as a robotic collection of tired tropes.