Seeking Hidden Quotas


FOR years, Asian-American students and professors have charged the University with employing hidden quotas for admission. Harvard has customarily deflected these accusations by citing its efforts to create a diverse student body and by claiming that fewer Asian-Americans fall into the school's most favored admissions groups: varsity athletes and children of alumni.

Two weeks ago, the Department of Education acknowledged it was investigating Harvard and other top universities for discriminating against Asian-Americans in its college admissions policies. This is not an issue that has fallen out of the blue--for the last five years, debate has raged in the University of California system and the Ivy League over whether the nation's top universities have been discriminating against Asian-Americans.

Harvard addressed these concerns last January in a statement arguing that Asian-Americans were over-represented in the sciences and math. Now, at long last, Harvard won't be able to fall back on its suspiciously pat answer--which subtly reinforces racial stereotypes of Asian-Americans as un-gifted in the humanities and gifted in the sciences and math. This investigation gives us the chance to examine Harvard's admissions policy and to learn what criteria are used to judge candidates.

THIS is not a frivolous or preliminary investigation, but instead carries with it the implicit charge that Harvard has not acted properly in its admissions policies. According to Gary L. Curran, special assistant to the assistant secretary of education, such reviews "must be based upon information that we receive that there is a particular problem in a particular school."

The statistics that we know are troubling: they imply that Harvard admits proportionally fewer Asian-Americans than all other ethnic groups, even though their applicant pool is more qualified acadmically. On average, only 13.3 percent of Asian-American applicants are admitted to Harvard versus 17 percent for white applicants. And Asian-Americans admitted to Harvard in 1982 and 1983 had SAT scores 50 to 100 points higher than their white counterparts. Even though Asian-American applications this decade have soared, their proportion of Ivy League student bodies in the early 1980's has remained between 10 and 12 percent. What is even more troubling is that these are the only statistics we have--the University reveals nothing about how it judges other admissions factors, such as grades, activities, or region.

While the quest for diversity in the student body is a noble one, Harvard did employ similar reasoning about preserving diversity to limit Jewish admittees before World War II. Whether or not such quotas exist, the University owes its community and its outside critics an explanation, one that does not rest lightly on vague ideals or blatant favoritism of alumni and athletes. Harvard can best do this by cooperating fully with the federal investigation and by going an extra step further and opening up its secretive admissions process to public examination.