What Is Harvard Hiding?

Evidence of bias against Asian-Americans deserves legal scrutiny.

 
 

Graduating students line up for the 366th commencement exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Ma, May 25.
Graduating students line up for the 366th commencement exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Ma, May 25. PHOTO: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS
 

One microdrama this week came from a leaked document revealing that the Justice Department may staff up an investigation into “intentional race-based discrimination” in college admissions. The left is accusing Justice of dismantling racial preferences, though acceptance practices at elite universities deserve more scrutiny, particularly regarding Asian-American applicants.

In 2015 a coalition of more than 60 Asian-American groups filed a complaint with the Justice Department Civil Rights Division that alleges admissions discrimination at Harvard University, and the details are striking. In 1993 about 20% of Harvard students were Asian-American, and that figure has barely budged over two decades, even as the Asian-American share of the U.S. population has grown rapidly. Harvard’s admitted class of 2021 is 22% Asian-American, according to data on the university’s website, and the numbers are roughly consistent at Princeton, Yale and other Ivy League schools.

Compare that with California, where a 1990s referendum banned the state’s public universities from considering race as an admissions factor. The share at University of California campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles tops 30%, as the complaint notes. At the private California Institute of Technology, which by choice does not consider race as a factor, more than 40% of students were Asian-American in 2013, up from 26% in 1993. 

Also notable is research on how much more competitive Asian-Americans must be to win entry into Harvard or other hallowed progressive halls. All else being equal, Asian-American must score 140 points higher on the SAT than a white counterpart, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student, and 450 points higher than a black applicant, according to 2009 research from Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and co-author Alexandria Walton Radford.

Schools are allowed to consider race as a “plus” factor, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in recent years has muddied the legal standards, most recently in Fisher v. University of Texas. But the Asian-American disparities look like evidence of de facto admissions quotas that the High Court has explicitly declared illegal.

Harvard denies wrongdoing and has long said the university takes a “holistic” view of every applicant, which presumably includes whether an 18-year-old plays football or the piccolo. A lawsuit from the nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions makes similar allegations against Harvard, and discovery will be instructive.

The Justice Department has said its leaked document was merely seeking lawyers to consider the merits of the Asian-American complaint, and on all the available evidence the admissions books at Harvard and elsewhere are ripe for a closer look. If colleges are enforcing quotas on qualified applicants merely because of their ethnicity, the term for that is one familiar to progressive academics: institutional racism.

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