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Asian-Americans: Fighting on Two Fronts


By Nicole Seligman

THE COLLEGE'S REFUSAL to admit two Chinese women to a freshman minority orientatio banquet earlier this year irritated a sensitive nerve in relations between the University and Asian-American students in the Harvard community. The issue, which appears at the moment to be stalemated, brought to the forefront a disparity in the definitions of "minorities" utilized by the federal Department of Health, Education and welfare and by the University: the former includes Asian-Americans, the latter does not. But while the quarrel has to date centered primarily on this rather technical issue, the questions raised go far deeper, extending to the psychology of non-white students at Harvard, the underlying philosophy of admissions department recruitment programs and the need for increased orientation programs for all students, not simply those fitting narrowly-defined criteria.

When an ad hoc group of students representing several third world student organizations last month demanded that the University officially recognize Asian-American students as members of a minority group, it scored only a partial victory. For while Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, agreed to include Asian-American students in future programs for minorities sponsored by his office, he declined to endorse their demand for minority status.

This reply has several remifications. Many Asian-American students now find themselves in limbo, unable to identify with the white majority, but separated by definition from the minorities on campus. This is a point which cannot and ought not to be disputed, but it is one which Epps has confronted only in agreeing to include Asian-American students in programs his office currently sponsors for Afro-Americans, Hispanic Americans and American Indians. In determining whether he should take even this step, Epps said he required an adequate mandate from the Harvard Asian-American community that this was indeed what it desired.

But since his decision, students, and not only Asian-Americans, have raised objections to the new policy in the form of a letter to the editor of the Crimson and in conversations with administrators, claiming that not all Asian-American students believe participation in orientation programs to be necessary, or potentially worthwhile. While this may be true, it is clear that if even a small number of students feel they might benefit from them, the programs should be made available; they will certainly not be obligatory. This holds not only for Asian-American students, but for all students who find it difficult to adjust to life in the Harvard community. The dean's office is currently considering opening the minority orientation program to all students next year; the incident at the start of this year should help push the office toward this end.

Beyond the social and cultural concomitants to "minority status" within the University, another salient factor is minority recruitment in the undergraduate admissions office. By including Asian-American students in its affirmative action plan, HEW requires only that the admissions office provide statistical breakdowns of the numbers of applications it receives from four ethnic groups--the three Harvard groups and Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Therefore, active and extensive recruitment programs are not necessarily promoted by this classification. Instead, as L. Fred Jewett '57, dean of admissions and financial aid, said earlier this week, the admissions office "feels the important criterion is whether natural applications are underrepresented. For example, in deciding if we spend more time in the Midwest or New England, in relative terms we spend more time in the Midwest, because we tend not to get so many applications from there."

Asian-Americans have not been underrepresented in the applicant pool over the years, he says. And while students now argue that there are pockets of underrepresentation, such as urban areas, Chinatowns and Little Tokyos, Jewett says he is willing to work with any groups of students which believes its members are significantly handicapped in receiving information about Harvard and applying to the College. And Jewett says it has only been in recent years the Asian-American students have expressed an interest in coordinating activities, like student travel and correspondence with his office.

It appears then that there are two separate questions at hand. One, and perhaps the less tangible, is the issue of Asian-Americans as a minority. This seems to require less an evaluation of statistics and more a realization of the psychological pressures of being an Asian-American student. White resistance to programs for blacks for years rested on the attitude that "if the Jews did it so should blacks be able to." Yet the situation was not so clear, for the reality was that blacks, like Asian-Americans, face one almost impenetrable barrier to total assimilation: their physical appearance. The situation of an Asian-American is therefore not the same as that of a rural midwesterner, as some have argued in objection to the demand. In this context, it is clear that Asian-Americans should not only be invited to participate in events designed to ease the process of assimilation, but should also be deemed a minority by the University. This would help to alleviate the effect of non-recognition, which is--according to Fred Houn, a member of the Coalition of Asian-American Students--"to divide third world students and to discriminate against Asian-Americans."

The second issue has little to do with the University's conception of minorities. The admissions office functions as a virtually autonomous unit, setting its own priorities by its own criteria. Students therefore should realize that their efforts must be concentrated on two separate fronts. The office appears willing, within the limits of its budget, to work with students to begin to penetrate the underrepresented areas.

The issue raised by the students' demand is not so much a statistical one, and ought not to be treated as such. It is the responsibility of the University to recognize this, and to deal with the situation not in a cold, numerical way, but with a clear understanding of the psychological needs the students themselves point to

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