Tuesday, November 25, 2014

HARVARD | Admissions, The Asian Quota (Comment)

Harvard Yard, 18th century.
A NY Times op-ed today, "Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?" by Yascha Mounk suggests that the answer to the question is yes, Harvard is unfair, or at very least opaque.

Based on the circumstantial evidence that Asians are a flat share of undergraduates for 20 years, despite the fact that Asians are "the fastest-growing racial group in America", there seems to be a quota for Asian applicants at Harvard.

If so, it would be reminiscent of the quota in place for Jews in the 1920s-1950s.

The topic of the admissions process to Ivy League colleges is of intense interest to Americans. The most-read article in the history of the New Republic was one in July this year on this subject, questioning the process.

The op-ed takes us back to Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, who warned that the "Jewish invasion" of Harvard College in 1922 (when Jews were 21.5 percent of freshmen, three times the rate at the turn of the century), would "ruin the college." He wanted the Jewish quota to be 15 percent.  The faculty objected, so he imposed a de facto cap on Jewish admissions by taking sports and character (and geographical distribution) into account in the admissions process that was pursued into the 1950s.

I wrote a letter to the East Hampton Star about this two years ago, where I noted the changes that had taken place in the 1950s. Catholics may have been very briefly favored as the Kennedy family rose in importance. Portsmouth Priory (now Abbey) School, with a senior class then of 35 boys, had seven alumni in the Harvard Class of 1962–more than twice the number of African Americans in the class. (Portsmouth also had an exceptionally qualified headmaster, Fr. Leo van Winkle, an atomic scientist with a Yale doctorate.)

Our Harvard class elected the first African American Class Marshal–Haywood Burns. Affirmative action for Catholics, if that is what occurred, was overtaken in the 1960s by a realization that Harvard should participate in affirmative action for African Americans. This in turn was overtaken by the huge upheaval when women pressed for equal status. The Harvard Class of 1963 was the first to offer Radcliffe students a Harvard diploma. The same objections to women were raised that had been raised about Jews. The quota today, I suggested in my letter, was applied to Asians.

The op-ed by Mounk accepts that the admissions process does not lend itself to "one right answer" to the problem of allocating spaces in elite schools. The author simply asks for more transparency about the process...


I frankly doubt we will voluntarily get much more transparency about the process currently in place– the choices are too difficult and controversial–but we might get more transparency about the past and about the process, which will be helpful in addressing the issues being raised today.

Meanwhile, an advocacy group has filed a law suit against Harvard for discriminating against Asians. The Economist doubts it will win, but if it makes a good case it may lead to changes in policies of Harvard and other Ivy League colleges–if not changes in the selection criteria and process, then perhaps more disclosure of the criteria.