President Trump’s vow to change a “rigged system” helped propel him to victory over stodgy supporters of “liberal” and “conservative” non-alternatives. His Department of Justice has sided with Asian-Americans claiming discrimination in admissions at Harvard and, again on their behalf, expressed interest in the possibility of antitrust violations in early admissions to elite schools.
As the putatively Chinese proverb has it, one picture is worth a thousand words (or even a whole article). This graph depicts the issue:
Displayed are the percentages of Asian-American undergraduate students at California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University, from 1980 to 2015, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics of the Department of Education.
Do elite universities in America discriminate against Asian-Americans and establish a quota in the form of a ceiling on their numbers? The graph above (the only one among the thousand or so words here) shows a plateau for MIT and Harvard against the results at Caltech, where undergraduate Asian-American enrollment has risen over 40 percent Caltech does not practice affirmative action.
Discrimination against Asian-American undergraduate applicants has long been suspected (and even admitted, in the case of Stanford University, back in 1986). This old story has also been well-known among the parents of college-bound Asian-American kids and, of course, those students themselves. After crunching the numbers, Althea Nagai (who is also my wife) places the blame squarely on the much-hailed “holistic admissions” approach of the “Harvard plan” (as in the Bakke case, which justified affirmative action), and once helped put a lid on Jewish admissions in the 1920s.
What might justify such differences? We need first to consider the varied purposes of higher education in America, besides the propagation of ruling elites that it has in common with other countries.
Compare Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and France, where students are admitted to studies on the basis of universal exams held in high school. A venerable French professor told me “that essentially the very best, most hard-working of the upper class continues to dominate France by preparing their children for these elite schools. This is the state-oriented, civil elite that Napoleon wanted. There are different ways of sifting the wheat from the chaff in other European countries.” For these old nations, still striving to display their new democratic soul, exams are a meritocratic alternative to the class privileges of these oligarchic regimes. Was the daughter of the president of a prominent Asian nation (worse than your ordinary oligarchy) relegated to attend Harvard because her exam scores were too low for her to attend her nation’s most selective university?
With their sports teams, extracurricular activities, fraternities, and lavish facilities, typically unknown abroad, American colleges have purposes unrelated to intellectual capacity. Half the colleges and universities are private, including the most prestigious ones. They were formed as Alexis de Tocqueville’s civil associations, often for religious purposes, such as Harvard.
The public institutions are also diverse—including community colleges, land-grant universities, highly selective public ones, military academies. Schools may be nonprofit or for-profit, brick-and-mortar, or online; they can be historically black or for foreigners. They can be known for their economics departments, their wild parties, or their sports teams. Thus the je ne sais quoi of the “Harvard man.” We do know he’s at the top. Of what? Is there in fact a universe of which he is master?
What the Asian-American anomaly illuminates is the widespread lack of purpose of the American universe-ity. Or it could be said that American colleges and universities fulfill a variety of purposes, a multiversity without a particular unity. Let me speculate, in the spirit of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Book 15, chapter five, a “defense” of black slavery, on the elites’ motives for limiting Asian-American admissions.
First, be it noted, that some Asian-Americans support the affirmative-action regime that has led to these admissions plateaus. One Korean-American law professor at Harvard maintains, apparently with a straight face, that “We [Tonto to Lone Ranger?] should not want the composition of our élite universities to be wildly out of proportion to the racial composition of our country. Such lopsided access to gateways of opportunity and power—say, with whites being severely underrepresented at schools like Harvard—has the potential to fuel dangerous resentment and disturb social peace, at least if the change occurs too far ahead of demographic changes that are projected to make whites a minority in this country in less than three decades. I would not relish seeing the nation’s most élite colleges become majority Asian . . . .” That old villain in the woodpile, white racism! Some Asian-Americans, leftist apologists, bemoan the use of Asian-Americans against affirmative action for underrepresented minorities, while others try to “pass.”
But these apologetics deflect asking the tough questions. The plateau of admissions at around 20 percent (ticking slightly upward to 22 percent for Harvard in Fall 2018, likely in response to the litigation) suggests that the admissions committees of these schools see that number as a tipping point of some sort.
One might ask the admissions bureaucrats what would be wrong about a majority Asian-American elite school, such as the University of California, San Diego (counting Filipinos as Asian-Americans)? Would it become another UCLA, a “University for Caucasians Lost among Asians”? In the case of Caltech, would the television comedy “Big Bang Theory” need to include more Asians? Would such a Golden Horde incite ill-will against Asian-Americans? Would these “wildly out of proportion” and “lopsided” enrollments fuel “dangerous resentment and disturb social peace”? Would campus mobs begin to go after “Library Man”? Or might he abuse his newfound power?
The term Asian-American itself is a bureaucratic invention, somehow covering nationalities from Pyongyang to Pakistan. So would our admissions committees worry: Would Asian-Americans on campus self-segregate into Korean, Japanese, and various Chinese and South Asian subgroups? Would Asian passivity hinder them from contributing to classroom or social interaction? Might Asians make blacks uncomfortable? And, it must be asked, would too many Asians discourage white women from matriculating at Harvard?
Would sports teams (football, basketball) be weaker? Moreover, would Asian Americans be less committed to their college’s social life and therefore less loyal to the school following graduation (and therefore less likely to be active alumni)? Are Asians cut out only for staff and not for top management—note the disparity in Silicon Valley? Are they too family-focused to enjoy Woodrow Wilson’s educational goal of separating them from their fathers? They’re just not like the Americans we grew up with, snap the admissions gatekeepers.
Finally, the killer qualm: Given that the growing proportions of Asian-Americans are first generation or immigrants, are they less patriotic, with divided loyalties, than other Americans? Note the espionage cases involving Chinese-Americans, not to mention the need for Japanese exclusion in World War II. These are not “Harvard men”—whatever we may think about Alger Hiss.
Has the liberal education establishment, which has given campuses multiculturalism, suppression of free speech, and promiscuity, produced or even conspired to bring about an academic form of redlining or discrimination in admissions, embodying base Progressive racial prejudices?
Harvard’s admission bureaucracy, and its elite brethren, appear to have built a wall, and Asian-Americans have no desire to pay for it. Would Asian-Americans redefine the elite this establishment has tried to produce, the one mocked by David Brooks, or would they become absorbed into it? There is truth in the Korean-American Harvard professor’s fear: “I would not relish seeing the nation’s most élite colleges become majority Asian….” It would not elevate Asian-Americans (or any other American) to confuse status for real greatness.
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Photo credit: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images