Harvard, the buck stops here


Massachusetts Hall at Harvard University. Photo credits: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz.

Harrison Chen

On August 30, the United States Department of Justice sided with anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions. The group consists of rejected Asian-American Harvard applicants. To contrast, Vanderbilt University has filed an amicus curiae in support of Harvard. The group is suing Harvard University for what they claim is a quota-based admission system that cap the amount of Asian-American students.


Many people, of all races, are wary of affirmative action.


The New York Times has labeled the battle as a racially-charged skirmish between “white conservatives” and the “legacy of the civil rights era.” Bearing in mind that the New York Times has a historical aversion for white people (just look to their pandering to anti-Caucasian editorial board member Sarah Jeong), their claim is fallacious, broad and intellectually bankrupt.


Many people, of all races, are wary of affirmative action. A 2016 Gallup poll showed that 70 percent of Americans believe that colleges should admit students solely based on merit. Fifty-seven percent of blacks believe that race and ethnicity should play no role in admissions.


According to the plaintiffs in the case, Harvard’s goal was to keep the Asian population at Harvard artificially low, below a threshold set at around 20 percent. Harvard was very successful in achieving this goal: despite the fact that Asian-American application rates have, as compared to other races, risen disproportionately in the last few decades, the percentage of Asians admitted to Harvard has been stable. In 1992, 19 percent of admitted students were Asian. In 2013, that number ticked down to 18 percent. To contrast, the California Institute of Technology has seen Asian-American admits rise from 25 to 43 percent in the same period. The only difference: California had a state referendum on affirmative action that resulted in the adoption of Proposition 209, essentially banning any kind of racially-based admissions process.


The data becomes even more ominous the deeper you dig. When comparing test scores, grades, and extracurriculars, Asian-Americans scored higher than any other ethnic group. However, they did score lower in one arena: personality measures. According to the analysis by the plaintiffs, Asian-Americans scored significantly lower on personality measures such as “likeability, courage, kindness and being ‘widely respected.’” Harvard and other elitist schools, who would be otherwise fighting against the prejudice that underlies these sorts of generalizing statements, are turning around and promoting racial psychological comparisons. While it is possible that racial subgroups have different personality attributes, Harvard is hypocritical when it rails against these types of claims.


For some perspective, this type of language regarding “intangibles” was used to discriminate against Jewish Harvard applicants in the 1920s and 1930s. The irony is that Harvard and other Ivy League schools failed to perpetually keep out Jewish students. Today, Jews are not limited to reflect their small population size at Ivy League Universities. This shift was, and still is, a major success.


When students are not matched with classrooms and peers that match their abilities, they struggle academically.


Not only are the costs of racially-based admissions high for Asian-Americans, but there have been rather substantial costs to African-Americans and other minorities. There are repercussions for matching under-qualified students with competitive colleges. Look to, for example, the University of Texas. Before the Fisher v. University of Texas oral arguments in 2012, Black UT students had scored in the 52nd percentile on the SAT while the average white student had scored in the 89th percentile. This is a huge discrepancy that compels severe consequences.


When students are not matched with classrooms and peers that match their abilities, they struggle academically. This is true across all races and ethnicities, whether you’re white, African-American, Hispanic, Asian or another ethnicity. You pay the price.


In the business sphere, affirmative action hiring similarly has massive repercussions. Because business’ racial makeup often do not match the surrounding population, some companies are charged with discrimination without any human flesh-and-blood testimony. This happens despite the fact that there are many factors that play into hiring and employee makeup, including different groups of people applying to different jobs and having different median ages (which is a good measure of how far one has advanced in one’s career). This represents a move away from traditional American legal principles where the burden of proof rests heavily on the accused.


Startlingly, some companies, many of them Japanese firms, have moved away from concentrations of Black populations. These companies fear the potential lawsuits that come with majority-minority enclaves. Good intentions do not necessarily lead to beneficial outcomes.


We are trying to combat past inequalities with, ironically, additional inequality.


To win election, politicians have every incentive to support these claims for “diversity” and “inclusion.” Consequently, there are very few politicians who would dare say that they don’t believe in “diversity” and “inclusion.” And despite polling data showing that the vast majority of Americans disagree with affirmative action policies, being “anti-diversity” is political suicide in a growing number of electorate environments because of a loud, pompous minority.


Vast, sweeping reforms, such as affirmative action, have opportunity costs. And, unfortunately, in many instances these costs are magically swept away when politicians appeal to this vocal minority.


On Vanderbilt and other elite campuses, we have created institutions that fail to reward merit, losing sight of the American Dream and failing our citizens. We are trying to combat past inequalities with, ironically, additional inequality.


It takes a certain level of patronization to believe that minorities require heavy assistance from elitists. It takes a whole other level of ignorance to disregard the costs that plague any legislation or decision.

The DOJ has made a powerful and accurate decision in this case. And although it’s just a small step, they’re walking in the right direction. Let’s hope that they don’t stray off.


Harrison Chen is a first-year in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]