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Excerpts From Education Department Report on Harvard


The following are partial excerpts from a statement of findings written by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights

At Harvard, interest in the admission of Asian American students dates back to the mid-1970s, when Asian American and other minority groups sought to increase the recruitment and admission of minority applicants. A major objective of the Harvard Asian American student group then was to be recognized by Harvard as a minority group, and included in the affirmative action programs of the Admissions Office. By 1983, student concerns included their belief that stereotypes of Asian Americans held by Admissions Officers contributed to the low percentage of applicants admitted, a rate below that for all other ethnic groups, including whites. A further concern was the small number of Asian Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds who were admitted...

In this review OCR first sought to determine whether Asian American were admitted to Harvard at a significantly lower rate than whites. If true, we would then seek to explain why the disparity existed, and whether any explanations, or the admissions process itself, indicated discrimination against Asian Americans, in violation of Title VI. Included in our review was an examination of the alleged quota issue, and also the general treatment of Asian Americans in the admissions process...

The fourth reader is considered a "specialty" reader...Other fourth readers serve as "ethnic" readers who review large numbers of applications from a specific minority group. By doing this, "ethnic" readers develop a greater awareness of the overall attributes of the particular minority group in an applicant class. Harvard uses ethnic or fourth readers for Asian American, Black, Hispanic and Native American applicants. The primary purpose of the Asian American "ethnic" read (reading) is to provide an additional or different sensitivity to the review of the application. The ethnic read is designed to ensure that no special cultural or ethnic factors are overlooked which might prevent an Asian American applicant's background from being fully understood. Those applicants who are exceptionally strong and likely to be admitted anyway, or are so weak as to have virtually no chance of admission, many not be reviewed by an ethnic reader. According to the Dean of Admissions, the Asian American reader reviews folders of Asian American applicants who "have a chance," perhaps 80 percent of the applicants...

In light of the lower rating for Asian Americans and the subjective nature of the personal category, we looked for evidence of stereotyping, and for indications that cultural differences, which might have placed Asian American applicants at a disadvantage, were overlooked. Basically, as discussed more fully in the following section, we found little evidence of negative stereotyping of Asian American applicants. With respect to cultural differences it was not apparent from readers' comments or from the ratings themselves, how, if at all, ethnic or cultural background was taken into account. Perhaps more importantly, however, numerous Asian American files did not reflect review by the Asian American reader, raising the potential that cultural differences in areas affecting the personal rating, such as leadership style, for example, may not have been fully considered...

We found that of the 989 Summary Sheets from Asian American applicant files, only 189 or approximately 19.1 percent had been read by the Asian American ethnic reader. OCR's review of the Summary Sheets, therefore, did not support Harvard's initial contention that the ethnic reader reads "most" of the Asian American applicants, or that she reads "all" or nearly all of the Vietnamese and Filipino applicants. OCR observed several applicants who were noted by the reader as Vietnamese refugees or of Filipino heritage, for whom there was not evidence of the ethnic read. Additionally, most of the Asian American cases that were read by the ethnic reader were not read by her as an "extra" or "4th" reader, but rather as a first reader who was assigned to read the case because it was on her docket.

However, Harvard indicated that the Asian American ethnic reader was assigned to dockets and sits on subcommittees which included over half of all Asian American applicants. Consequently, Harvard asserts that in addition to those applicant files in which OCR found evidence of the Asian American ethnic read, the Asian ethnic reader reviews files and participates in discussions at subcommittee and full committee meetings on many more Asian American applicants for which there is no written evidence of her input.

In order to see whether the Asian American ethnic reader's rating or comments were any different than other readers, we looked separately at Summary Sheets from all Asian American and white applicants in our sample which she had read. OCR found that there was no discernable distinction in either the nature or tone of her comments for Asian American and white applicants. Her comments addressed, generally, the strengths and weakness of each applicant. There was also no discernable difference between her comments and those of other readers in terms of any cultural or experiential differences faced by Asian American applicants. Put another way, it would be no easier to tell from her comments than from any other reader's comments, that the applicant being reviewed was Asian American or that the reader reviewing it was a fourth or ethnic reader. Similarly, the ratings, themselves, suggest little if any difference between the Asian American ethnic reader's numerical ratings of Asian American applicants and other reader's numerical ratings of Asian American applicants. Harvard asserted that the Asian American ethnic reader played an important role, not only in reviewing applicant files, but in sharing useful information about Asian American applicants with other readers. They claimed that she generally heightened staff awareness of Asian American issues which could help Asian American applicants in the admission process.

While our file review did not support Harvard's assertion that the Asian American ethnic reader reviews "most" of all files of Asian American applicants who "have a chance," we could not conclude that the lack of an ethnic read put Asian Americans at a disadvantage. However, the Asian American ethnic reader's role, in part, was to ensure that no cultural or ethnic differences pertaining to Asian Americans were overlooked. To the extent that she is unable to review Asian American files as a reader, the possibility exists that some ethnically-related factors might be overlooked.

In addition to examining the ethnic reader's comments, OCR's concern for the potential stereotyping of Asian American applicants prompted a review of reader comments for negative characterizations which could have an impact on the admissions decision and ratings. On its face, reader comments revealed several recurring characterizations attributed o Asian American applicants. Quite often Asian American applicants were described as being quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard workers. For example, one reader's comment embraced all of these in describing an Asian American applicant when she wrote: "...[applicant] seems like a reserved, hard-working, aspiring woman scientist/doctor."

While such descriptions may not seem damaging, OCR was conscious that problems of "model minority" stereotypes could negatively impact Asian American applicants as a whole. This concern was also raised when OCR's file review came upon comments such as:

"He's quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor..." suggesting that most or all Asian American applicants "want to be a doctor." Or more pointedly: "...[applicant's] scores and application seem so typical of other Asian applications I've read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English."

OCR noted that in a number of cases. Asian American applicants were described as "quiet, shy, reserved, self-contained, soft spoken" and that these characteristics were underlined for added emphasis by the reader. While white applicants were similarly described, OCR found such descriptions ascribed to Asian American applicants more frequently. In some cases these comments actually originated from the interviews, teacher or counselor recommendations, or self-descriptions given by the applicant. For instance, in one case, an interviewer wrote:

"...he comes across as the hard worker rather than the really outstanding potential scholar."

"...[applicant] has naturally reserved qualities."

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