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Harvard’s Bamboo Ceiling

By Geoffrey B. Kristof, Gregory D Kristof, Christopher A Miao, and Min-Woo S Park

UPDATED: May 13, 2015, at 1:36 p.m.

This year, Harvard accepted 5.3 percent of applicants. As society places ever-more value on higher education, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on an admissions process that works through excluding.

In 2014, a legal defense group called Project on Fair Representation filed a lawsuit against numerous elite colleges, including Harvard, claiming that the colleges are “employing racially and ethnically discriminatory policies” through their admissions processes. The suit comes after the group launched a site seeking students who believed they had been denied admission to Harvard because of their race. Asian Americans were specifically cited as a population facing discrimination.

Harvard’s reported enrollment of Asian Americans began gradually declining from 20.6 percent in 1993 to about 16.5 percent over the past decade, and Asian Americans, according to one estimate, must outperform Whites and Hispanics by 140 and 280 points, respectively, on the SAT (1600-scale) to gain admission to elite colleges. It is disparities like this that give rise to allegations of an unofficial quota on Asian Americans in Ivy League admissions.

In response, Harvard has vigorously denied any racial discrimination beyond the “holistic” affirmative action policies it openly admits to, which take race into account as a way of building a diverse student body.

As a student organization dedicated to serving the Asian American community, we detest the use of an unofficial quota in university admissions. However, two preliminary points should be noted.

First, many datasets being analyzed are awful, and we may not get a clear picture of the state of college admissions until Universities release internal admissions statistics. Some conclusions are drawn indirectly from the racial gap in admitted students; other datasets are painstakingly patched together through comprehensive last name analysis of applicant pools.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that a growing number of applicants, perhaps pre-empting possible discrimination, are opting not to disclose their race on their application. On top of that, it is difficult to objectively judge who “deserves” to get into a top college.

Second, no one individual can ever know the precise reason they were rejected without access to internal admissions documents. Since the criteria used to judge applicants is opaque, so too is judgment of the outcomes of those decisions.

Each of these factors makes this hot-button issue ever more complicated. When facts are elusive and emotions run hot, it’s easy to gravitate towards convenient narratives that fuel dogmatism and division. Or just shrug and say, “I don’t know.”

We don’t know exactly what is going on behind the closed doors of admissions offices. We do know that any racial “quota” would be racist, unfair, and reminiscent of the much-maligned Jewish quotas of the early twentieth century.

This is not to say that we are necessarily against the oft-touted “holistic” admissions process. As students ourselves who have benefited from the diversity of perspectives at Harvard, we see the importance of actively promoting diversity through affirmative action. Moreover, we agree that a test score cannot necessarily convey the intricate modalities of thought marked by true intelligence. We are only against holistic admissions if it is a euphemism for unofficial racial quotas.

Importantly, there are multiple ways in which an admissions policy might be thought to be discriminatory. On the one hand, it might be that Asian American applicants must meet higher SAT standards because they tend to underperform in other aspects (say, leadership or athleticism) rightly emphasized by a holistic admission process. On the other hand, it might be that Asian American applicants must meet higher SAT standards simply because Harvard—perhaps in pursuit of racial diversity—caps the proportion of Asian Americans in the student body. We are ambivalent about the former type of discrimination. But we decry the latter.

Harvard should, too. As a place that values freedom of thought, meritocracy, and the furthering of human knowledge, it makes sense that some underrepresented racial minorities are aided through affirmative action. Having viewpoints informed by different geo-cultural backgrounds expands the intellectual playing field and increases the efficiency of the marketplace of ideas, making it more difficult to survive on dogmatism through isolation.

But there is a sense in which racial diversity is only skin deep. We must also value diversity of interests, of hobbies, of intellectual pursuits, of backgrounds, of culture, of economic status, of citizenship, and so forth–enduring traits that define the quality of our character. A racial quota means undermining genuine diversity for superficial diversity, diversity of thought for diversity of skin. One can take race into account for historically oppressed and underrepresented minorities without having fixed racial ratios for everyone else.

It is hard to reach a satisfying conclusion about an issue fraught with so many uncertainties, but we hope that the debate can move beyond groundless accusations toward an objective, fact-finding search for truth. Universities, for their part, can help by promoting greater transparency within their admissions process, and releasing the ethnographic statistics of their applicant pool.

We wish that Harvard were large enough to accommodate all who wish to study here. Given that it isn’t, we should work to ensure that the available spots are accorded to those who most deserve them.

Geoffrey B. Kristof '17, Gregory D. Kristof '15, Christopher A. Miao '16, and Min-Woo S. Park '16 serve on the  Board of Directors of the Asian American Brotherhood. They here represent the position of AAB as a whole. Geoffrey B. Kristof is an inactive Crimson editorial writer.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: May 13, 2015

An earlier tagline for this op-ed misstated the class years of Christopher A. Miao and Min-Woo S. Park. In fact, Miao and Park are both members of the Class of 2016.

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