Thursday, July 26, 2018

Harvard's Inconvenient Truth - George Shen

by George Shen

Does Harvard discriminate against Asian-Americans? To an institution whose mission is pursuing truth and whose motto is "Veritas," the question is of paramount importance.

A lawsuit against Harvard has revealed in recent court filings troubling evidence of racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in the admissions process. More damning are the findings from Harvard's own internal investigation conducted by the Office of Institutional Research (OIR). Harvard denies any wrongdoing.

Does Harvard discriminate against Asian-Americans? To an institution whose mission is pursuing truth and whose motto is "Veritas," the question is of paramount importance.

The OIR investigation found that Asian-American applicants, who had the highest scores in both academic and extracurricular ratings, were rated consistently lowest among all racial groups in personality traits by Harvard admissions officers who had never met them. The subjective personality traits include likability, helpfulness, courage, kindness, integrity, and respectability. Although Asian-American admittance hovered around 19 percent, that number would be 43 percent if based on academic performance. With personality ratings, the "holistic" approach effectively limits the number of Asian-American admits. 

In her official response, Harvard's outgoing president Drew Faust framed the issue as "defending diversity" and declared the plaintiff would "seek to paint an unfamiliar and inaccurate image of our community and our admissions processes, including by raising allegations of discrimination against Asian-American applicants to Harvard College." She then went on: "We are bound across differences by a shared commitment to learning, to pursuing truth, and to embracing the rigor and respect of argument and evidence. We never give up on the promise of a world made better by an assumption revisited, an understanding expanded, or a truth questioned – again and again and again[.] ... I am committed to ensuring that veritas will prevail." 

After reiterating pursuing truth, Faust conveniently avoided answering why Asian-American applicants were consistently rated lower by Harvard on personality traits.

The incoming president, Lawrence Bacow, referring to "hundreds of thousands" of documents in court filings, stated, "There is not a single one which suggests that there is a policy to discriminate against anybody or to hold one group to a different standard than anybody else." But, he, too, gave no explanation for why so many Asian-Americans were deemed undesirable.

The practice of keeping undesirables out is hardly new. In The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, sociologist Jerome Karabel detailed the history of the admissions process at Harvard. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard's president then, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school. 

Even after his initial idea of a Jewish quota of 15 percent was heavily criticized, it didn't stop Lowell and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton from institutionalizing a new definition of "merit" to include information about an applicant's "character" and how to rate it. The net effect was that by the end of Lowell's term in 1933, Jewish enrollment of freshmen went down to 15 percent.

The inconvenient truth is that the admissions system used today is to a large extent still the same system used a century ago. The difference is the justification for having such system has changed from keeping the undesirables out to enforcing diversity and defending affirmative action. 

Ironically, there is also another kind of affirmative action – Legacy – reserved for the already rich, privileged, and powerful. The Harvard Crimson reported that the incoming class of 2021 is made up of over 29 percent legacy admits. This apparently counters the notion of meritocracy. One might ask, for applicants who have enjoyed a lifetime of advantage and who should be expected to outcompete the poor, the underprivileged, and the non-legacies, why in a world they still need a leg up. 

Additionally, as the richest college in the world with an endowment over $37 billion, Harvard hardly needs more donors and alumni support to justify giving preference to the children of wealthy and well connected. In fact, it seems an easy call for Harvard to end legacy preference immediately in exchange for a more meritocratic and diverse student body.

Complex issues aside, such as whether affirmative action is still necessary, how diversity should be best achieved, what is merit and how to define it, Harvard needs to answer the basic question, coherently and in good faith: why its admissions policy has a disproportionately negative effect on Asian-Americans in its subjective scoring.

For now, it appears that Harvard suffers no cognitive issues and is comfortable with race-based affirmative action in its current form both as an ideal and as a practice, which admits black and Latino students who would not have been admitted if they were white while at the same time being comfortable with rejecting Asian-American students who would have been admitted if they were white.

From rectifying historical injustice to giving racial preference to minorities of upscale households or new immigrants whose ancestors were not the victims of slavery, from preaching social equity and justice to courting the wealthy and privileged in legacy preference, from promoting campus diversity and inclusion to racial balancing by limiting Asian-Americans based on invidious racial stereotypes and prejudice, from advocating risk-taking and world-changing to maintaining the status quo and social norms, Harvard seems to want to have it all. 

But does Harvard want to seek truth? Pursuing truth will inevitably and painstakingly require Harvard to choose what's right over what's convenient.

It's high time for Harvard to revisit its assumptions, expand its understanding of diversity and sensitive racial issues, reject racial bias and stereotype, question social orthodoxy, challenge the status quo, and ultimately seek truth. If Harvard wants students to change the world, as so clearly manifested in its mission statement and eloquently exhorted by countless graduation speakers and alumni, a good start would be to change Harvard first. 

George Shen


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