Harvard, the buck stops here

In order to dismantle the inequitable affirmative action system, we have to start with racial quotas

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 harrison.chen@vanderbilt.edu.


  1. Great points on the DOJ case! Affirmative action has its flaws, so it’ll be interesting to see whether the courts will side with affirmative action once again, or try a new approach to integrating previously oppressed minority groups into the realm of higher education.

  2. I support quotas too but only to the extent that they are actually representative of the U.S. population in its entirety, taking into consideration recent immigrant populations. Affirmative action should be reassessed to consider socioeconomic factors; however, I wouldn’t say that race should be entirely overlooked. While it is possible that some minority students may struggle academically, there is great personal and intellectual growth that spawns in the event of adversity. Good education is an essential component to overcoming historical barriers that have impeded certain minority groups more heavily than others. Therefore, I find it troublesome for you to dismiss concerns of the “pompous minority.” Just look at the racial wage gaps in America, Argentina, Brazil, Canada… hell… it literally sounds like I’m constructing an abecedarian primer to explain that the wounds of colonialism are still fresh in the Western world as well as virtually every other contemporary society.

  3. Vanderbilt wouldn’t have the incredibly high SAT averages it does if your claims that African-Americans admitted are less capable was true. But let’s say there was some difference – do you really think that the education that students from poorer public schools prepares them for elite colleges the way that elite private high schools do? We do not yet have an equal percentage of African-Americans at those high schools. Students from those schools get into elite colleges disproportionately and no, it’s not just because they have smart parents. Many parents from countries like China, which has 2,000-year history of advancing people into the bureaucracy through difficult tests, also ensure that their children study hard and take extra classes on the SATs. Guidance counseling and peer group are just two of the factors that need to be added in – private school students are, essentially, benefiting from a kind of affirmative action all on their own. At a reception for students accepted into Duke several years ago, we were told that 4000 valedictorians were turned down. The fact is, there are far more students with incredible test scores, GPAs, etc., then there are spots available for them in the top universities. Yet the percentage of African-Americans who are ever told they should apply to these schools, and that they can offer better financial aid then their local schools, is low. If Vanderbilt has 3000 applicants that are all equal on paper, is there a reason to pick them all randomly and result with a class that is 43% Asian and 1% black? Then there are the long-term goals of not just Vanderbilt, but our country, to consider. Don’t we want a country where the percentage of black students in elite private high schools is the same as white? Don’t we want a country where it doesn’t occur to a police officer that black men are dangerous, because his own experience finds no difference with white men, and where if he arrests either of the men, he has no better shot at winning his case in court based on the color of that man’s skin? How do we make that world? Through bringing more people of color into universities where they make the kind of connections and get the kind of support to put them into top careers. And after that, we can be color blind.

  4. I’m sure you’re gonna catch a lot of flack for this, but I couldn’t agree more. Equity only exists when people are treated equitably. This whole notion of treating people differently in order to prove that they’re the same is complete nonsense.

    It’s already apparent from the comments that people aren’t actually reading your article before they decide you’re horribly mistaken. eg: “If Vanderbilt has 3000 applicants that are all equal on paper, is there a reason to pick them all randomly and result with a class that is 43% Asian and 1% black?” She apparently missed the part where you mentioned that the applications are *not* equal. We’re artificially inflating the ability assessments of some, and deflating those of others… all because treating them equally would somehow how inequitable. lol