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All Affirmation, No Action

By Darshak M. Sanghavi

ASIAN-AMERICAN students at Harvard are increasingly finding their minority status in limbo. On one hand, they comprise about 15 percent of undergraduates here, giving them the highest representation of any minority group. But Asian-Americans are radically underrepresented in the Faculty, and continue to face discrimination across the country.

Harvard administrators try to justify the lack of Asian-American faculty with the generalization that the "pool of qualified minority scholars is too small." At a meeting last spring, Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence told the Minority Student Alliance (MSA) that academic fellowships for minority students represented a quick method of removing at least some economic barriers that led to homogeneous faculties. Spence emphasized that the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship in particular would be a long-term aid in increasing the number of minority faculty members.

The Mellon Fellowship, however, does not apply to Asian-Americans, confirming a pattern of exclusion of Asian-Americans from programs intended to help minorities. Since Asian-Americans are a minority of the minority of non-whites, the majority thought the majority of minorities would be content with the fellowships.

The "minority" problem became simply an "Asian-American" problem, and was summarily ignored.

WHY are Asian-Americans excluded from minority fellowships? As a spokesperson for the Ford Foundation told me, "Orientals are overrepresented in the sciences." Displaying similar grouping, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Mark S. Ptashne remarked to his Biochemistry 10b class, "maybe I should say [the lecture material] in Chinese"--presumably because of the high number of Asian-Americans in the class. These sorts of blanket generalizations, while not motivated by real racial prejudice, represent a measure of ignorance.

Professor of Education and Social Structure Nathan Glazer commented this fall that "The Civil Rights act I assure you was never passed for Asians either." Such a simplification again strips Asian-Americans of their distinctive cultural identities and denies recognition of the overt and subtle barriers they face today.

Just because Asian-Americans might be adequetely represented in the undergraduate sciences doesn't mean that these barriers do not exist and that Asian-Americans may not need assistance in other fields. And that's what the foundations don't realize.

Mellon Foundation spokeperson Henry Drewry, who is responsible for administration of the fellowship, says in defense of the program's exclusionary policy, "We address the most acute aspects of the problem."

Pointing to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education and the American Council on Education, Drewry insists that Asian-Americans are well-represented in most faculties and Ph.D. programs. However, according to a 1988 Education Department report titled Increasing Minority Faculty: An Elusive Goal, Blacks and Hispanics have proportionally three-fold greater affinity for humanities Ph.D.'s than do Asian-Americans. The report flatly states, "Asian-Americans are highly concentrated in fields such as engineering and computer science..." The average salary of Asian-American professors also lags behind that of whites, Hispanics, and Blacks.

To justify the Mellon Foundation's policy, Drewry also referred to the significant advances of Asian-American representation in American universities. At Harvard, however, proportional Asian-American enrollment at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) is three times smaller than at the College.

An examination of the tenured faculty shows a total of four Asian-Americans in chemistry, physics, and biology combined. In the fields of classics, English, history, history of science, comparative literature, and philosophy, there is a mere total of three Asian-Americans tenured. These humanities are all fields supported by the Mellon Foundation for non-Asian minorities.

FELLOWSHIPS such as the Mellon and Ford are not affirmative action programs; rather, they merely act as encouragement to minority students. And this is precisely the point that is misinterpreted by opponents of affirmative action. If the ultimate goals of fellowships such as the Ford and Mellon are to normalize faculty salaries and representation, then the exclusion of Asian-Americans is indefensible.

Drewry counters, "These are matters that need to be addressed in a Harvard context... We have an obligation to look more broadly."

And so Harvard University will continue to assert that there are not enough qualified Asian-American humanities scholars suitable for tenure. And foundations such as the Mellon and Ford will continue to deny minority fellowships to Asian-Americans because "Orientals are overrepresented in the sciences." It leaves Asian-Americans paralyzed by a Catch-22.

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