NYT: The Yellow Peril Threatening Harvard`s Campus Culture

The most interesting response in the New York Times to Ron Unz`s demonstration that Ivy League colleges appear to have implemented a quota cap on Asian admissions is “Scores Aren`t the Only Qualifications” from Rod M. Bugarin, an elite college admissions professional who identifies as Asian-American. He doesn`t deny Unz`s charge, but tries to explain the reasons top colleges discriminate against Asians:

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. 

Having been one of those students who “enhance classroom discussions” (obviously, I`m biased, but I don`t think my assertion that my presence tended to make class discussions livelier and more intellectually interesting sounds all that far-fetched), and having two sons who do the same, I am sympathetic to this viewpoint.

On the other hand, I am not sure that the college admissions process is at all set up to assess this potential accurately. Some colleges do one-on-one interviews, and most ask for letters of recommendation, but it`s not at all clear that these vague instruments are terribly successful at identifying individuals who improve discussions and team projects. For example, I had lavish letters of recommendations from high school teachers and college professors about how much I benefitted the educational community, but then so do lots of applicants. I made sure to get a recommendation from my one high school teacher who had a Harvard Ph.D.. He wrote an exceptionally intelligent endorsement, but did it go over the heads of admissions workers?

What really works, I imagine, is for prep schools that have a long and deep relationship with elite colleges to make confidential assessments: “The faculty here at Groton is in near unanimous agreement that this applicant adds more to classroom discussions than any Groton student since Bill Smith four years ago, whom you will have noticed just became a Rhodes Scholar. As you know, we value our relationship with Harvard`s admissions` committee over all others, so we would not steer you wrong when we call your attention to this applicant`s intangibles.” That kind of thing coming from a top 100 prep school would probably swing some weight, while recommendations from teachers and staff at non-elite high schools probably don`t get taken too seriously because of small sample sizes.

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. Without practices like affirmative action, 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. 

Bugarin is conflating the terms “affirmative action” and “holistic admission,” which isn`t unreasonable.

I believe that all students, regardless of their ethnicity, can take pride that when applying to a highly selective institution that embraces the principles behind affirmative action, each document in your file is scrutinized to find subtle reasons that make you a great fit. 

Asian and Asian-American students should embrace affirmative action because it allows you to present yourself as a complete person instead of reducing yourself to a test score. More important, a campus community composed only of students who have aced standardized tests cannot match the dynamic, diverse ethos that currently exists.

More than three decades ago, a teacher at the most elite prep school in Los Angeles told me, with approval, that its admissions department routinely discounted the test scores of Asian applicants to keep classes from being overrun by students who only speak up to ask “Will this be on the test?”

I’m sure that many students, particularly Asian and Asian-Americans, would not find Ivy League schools as desirable if their campus communities only valued competitive, high-stakes testing where only a few are given the opportunity to succeed. 

And that is likely true.

Yet, the unfortunate reality is that highly selective campuses do not have enough room on their campuses to admit every student they find compelling. Affirmative action is one of many tools that helps my former colleagues make these subjective decisions in the most humane way possible.

Are there quantitative studies showing that current admissions procedures can and do identify students who would add more to campus life than their objective measurements would suggest?

You`ll notice that the government applies very different standards to different organizations. For example, the theory of disparate impact is applied often and strictly to fire departments. The FDNY`s hiring test — questions about how to fight fires — was thrown out by a federal court solely because of disparate impact. Now, here is an insider more or less admitting that elite colleges practice disparate treatment discrimination based on the hunch that a Wong is less likely to speak up in class than a Goldman or a Huntington, but where are the demands that Harvard show us the studies they have undertaken to prove this stereotype? I`m not saying they couldn`t do that, but I sure would like to read those secret studies … assuming they exist, which I doubt.

(A generation ago, Harvard let Robert Klitgaard, a statistically sophisticated social scientist who had worked in Harvard admissions, publish a 1985 book, Choosing Elites, recounting various admissions moneyball studies that Harvard had done, focusing most on the Class of `75. But I haven`t heard much since then out of the murky world of college admissions. I`d be particularly interested in Harvard`s models of what kind of alumni donate the most to Old Harvard`s annual fund drives.)

Asians-make-a-duller-campus is the kind of stereotype that`s pretty obvious (white Berkeley in the 1960s v. Asian Berkeley in this century is a historical comparison that leaps to mind), but not particularly easy to quantify, and not easy to defend in public.

But, shouldn`t the Harvards be asked to at least demonstrate that they`ve narrowed their stereotypes intelligently rather than painting with a broad racial brush? I can see South Asians in my readership raising their hands, saying, “Hey, us South Asians aren`t afraid to talk. Why do we have to get lumped in with East Asians?” And I can see American-born East Asians saying, “I`m not totally shy like the FOB East Asians like my parents.” And I can see East Asian children of American-born East Asians saying, “Hey, I`m pretty much like all the white kids I grew up with in our mostly white neighborhood, so don`t lump me in with the East Asian kids born in a high test score ghetto like Arcadia.” Or, “Hey, I`m only half Asian, and I got white personality genes.” Etc Etc

But, in the long run, Harvard will get away with lots of stuff that FDNY wouldn`t dream of trying, because it`s Harvard.