U.S. Dept of Ed Inquiry: Do Harvard and Princeton Discriminate Against Asian-American Students?

An Asian-American student says he was passed over because of his race. Experts help make sense of the thorny debate.

By Julianne Hing Feb 10, 2012

The U.S. Department of Education announced it will open an investigation into Harvard and Princeton’s admissions practices after receiving a discrimination complaint from a South Asian student who was at the top of his high school class but was denied by those schools, [Bloomberg](http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-02/harvard-targeted-in-u-s-asian-american-discrimination-probe.html) reported. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights received the complaint in August of 2011 and is merging their inquiry with a similar 2006 complaint made by Jian Li, an Asian-American student who was denied acceptance to Harvard, but later enrolled at Yale. The claim is that deserving Asian-American students are being passed over because of their race. The inquiry is no indication that the claims have merit, the Department of Education has said. For some, the new complaints smack of the snobby whining of highly privileged Asian-American students who feel entitled to acceptance to their first-choice school. But for many of the same people, the new complaints revive memories of a scandal in the 1980s and 1990s involving UC Berkeley, Stanford and other Ivy League universities which actually were discriminating against Asian-American students, forcing them to score higher than their peers in order to be admitted to these highly selective schools. It ignited anger among many; stories about higher education admissions are fundamentally about fairness and schools’ publicly stated commitments to diverse and well-integrated schools. The two pursuits can seem to be at odds with each other and the implicit message, advocates explain, is often that more deserving Asian-American students are being pushed out in favor of less-deserving black and Latino students. Anxieties about the discrimination of Asian Americans in higher education admissions are often used to mask an anti-affirmative action argument. Experts say the two issues need to be put in separate boxes. "Negative action is what was the basis of the cases 20 years ago and that’s what’s being alleged in these current cases," said Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Negative action, which Aung explained as being based on "a feeling," should not be confused with affirmative action, "which is a legal way that folks from underrepresented communities, which can be defined in a lot of ways, are given beneficial consideration" in a process that is holistic and by no means automatic. If it turns out that Asian-American students are being held to a higher standard, that would have nothing to do with affirmative action policies designed to increase the diversity of an incoming class, Aung said. Both Harvard and Princeton deny that they discriminate against Asian Americans in their admissions processes. "Harvard College does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants," Harvard spokesperson Jim Neal [said](http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/do-asian-americans-face-bias-in-admissions-at-elite-colleges/). "Our review of every applicant’s file is highly individualized and holistic, as we give serious consideration to all of the information we receive and all of the ways in which the candidate might contribute to our vibrant educational environment and community." While university spokespeople maintain that they review every applicant’s profile on an individual and holistic basis, the truth is that admissions officers are trying to put together a well-rounded incoming class. There is undoubtedly an ideally diverse student population universities attempt to foster, based on a student’s race, gender, class, their parents’ alumni status, geographic distribution, involvement in sports or music. Private schools are allowed to keep their admissions rubrics and acceptance data private. The danger, advocates say, is that concerns about diversity may be a convenient way of hiding discrimination against Asian-Americans. "The arguments [schools] are setting forth for what appears to be disparate treatment of APIs aren’t all that different from when I was working on this in the 1980s," said Grace Tsuang Yuan, the author of a 1989 law review article providing a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the admissions processes of elite universities. Yuan documented disparate acceptance rates for Asian-American students and white students. Asian-Americans, despite applying to Harvard, Stanford, Brown and UC Berkeley at increasing rates, were being admitted at lower rates than white students. Officials told Yuan that Asian-Americans were wonderful test-takers but tended to be one-dimensional candidates with an otherwise "flat profile." "I always wanted to ask, ‘What do you mean ‘flat’? Are you referring to the shape of my nose?’" Yuan found that even when it came to non-academic criteria, like students’ intended majors and their extracurricular activities and highly subjective "personal ratings," Asian-American students were given lower ratings than their white counterparts. Internal reviews at Brown University found that Asian-American applicants were given lower personal rating scores, due to the "cultural biases and stereotypes which prevail in the admissions office." Now, 23 years later and with identical complaints of discrimination surfacing but data a tightly held secret, Yuan says it’s time for Ivy Leagues and other elite schools to open their books. "I am a strong proponent for the idea that institutions should look at the whole profile of the candidate," Yuan said. "But I am opposed to the notion that diversity should be used to mask the biases of an admissions officer." Aung said, "The key thing is if," and she repeatedly stressed the if, "Asians are being required to score higher than white students, and I do specifically mean white kids because that’s the crux of the discrimination, then that amounts to affirmative action for white kids." At this point, arguments about possible discrimination are pure speculation. "This is one complaint by one individual," said Dana Takagi, a professor of ethnic studies at University of California at Santa Cruz. "That, that gives me pause." "We should always be concerned and watchful about places where there might be unconscious or conscious forms of bias, but I don’t know that this is one of those places," Takagi said. Asian-American education experts urge caution, and also, say that these sorts of highly emotional stories can be distracting. "These kids who end up at these elite institutions or are suing really come from the top 1 percent of Asian Americans," Oiyan Poon, a former admissions officer and education researcher at UCLA said. "It’s not the majority experience." Indeed, more than 40 percent of Asian Americans who are enrolled in any institution of higher education are enrolled in community colleges. Nevertheless, stories about Asian-Americans muscling their way to the top of the U.S. education system continue to have great narrative appeal that, Poon says, speaks to the country’s desire to imagine that we live in an era where race doesn’t matter anymore. "People really love colorblind rhetoric and Asian-Americans present a counter-narrative against other people of color’s traditional civil rights claims of discrimination," Poon said. "It goes back to [anti-affirmative action advocates’] rhetoric that discrimination and racism don’t exist because they can say, ‘Look at these Asians. The only kind of racism that exists is reverse racism.’"