20 years @15 percent: does Harvard discriminate against Asian-Americans?

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing


This is the brief filed yesterday against Harvard, alleging discrimination against Asian-American applicants. A related suit was filed against UNC, with perhaps another to come against Wisconsin. Re: the graph above, note that Caltech has race-blind admissions.

… Harvard is engaging in racial balancing. Over an extended period, Harvard’s admission and enrollment figures for each racial category have shown almost no change. Each year, Harvard admits and enrolls essentially the same percentage of African Americans, Hispanics, whites, and Asian Americans even though the application rates and qualifications for each racial group have undergone significant changes over time. This is not the coincidental byproduct of an admissions system that treats each applicant as an individual; indeed, the statistical evidence shows that Harvard modulates its racial admissions preference whenever there is an unanticipated change in the yield rate of a particular racial group in the prior year. Harvard’s remarkably stable admissions and enrollment figures over time are the deliberate result of systemwide intentional racial discrimination designed to achieve a predetermined racial balance of its student body.

The statistical signal of managing fluctuations from year to year (evidence of a race-based target as opposed to independent individual consideration of applicants) might be even stronger for lesser Ivys, which probably see larger variations in yield compared to Harvard. It will be fascinating to see Harvard administrators and admissions officers testifying under oath as to how enrollment by ethnic group has been kept so stable over the years. Legal analysis on SCOTUSblog.

The historical parallels with anti-semitic practices of the early 20th century are reviewed in detail:

… In a letter to the chairman of the committee, President Lowell wrote that “questions of race,” though “delicate and disagreeable,” were not solved by ignoring them. The solution was a new admissions system giving the school wide discretion to limit the admission of Jewish applicants: “To prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews, I know at present only one way which is at the same time straightforward and effective, and that is a selection by a personal estimate of character on the part of the Admissions authorities … The only way to make a selection is to limit the numbers, accepting those who appear to be the best.

… The reduction in Jewish enrollment at Harvard was immediate. The Jewish portion of Harvard’s entering class dropped from over 27 percent in 1925 to 15 percent the following year. For the next 20 years, this percentage (15 percent) remained virtually unchanged.

… The new policy permitted the rejection of scholastically brilliant students considered “undesirable,” and it granted the director of admissions broad latitude to admit those of good background with weaker academic records. The key code word used was “character” — a quality thought to be frequently lacking among Jewish applicants, but present congenitally among affluent Protestants.

This is what our country has come to:

… According to the Princeton Review: “Asian Americans comprise an increasing proportion of college students nationwide. Many Asian Americans have been extraordinarily successful academically, to the point where some colleges now worry that there are ‘too many’ Asian Americans on their campuses. Being an Asian American can now actually be a distinct disadvantage in the admissions processes at some of the most selective schools in the country …

… If you’re given an option, don’t attach a photograph to your application and don’t answer the optional question about your ethnic background. This is especially important if you don’t have an Asian sounding surname. (By the same token, if you do have an Asian sounding surname but aren’t Asian, do attach a photograph.)”

Please do not comment on this post unless you have read the brief. Comments that are dealt with directly in the brief will be deleted. I hope at least a few serious journalists take the time to read it.

See also Defining Merit, and my Bloomberg editorial on this subject: Transparency in College Admissions.

… Schools like Harvard and Princeton brag that each year they reject numerous applicants … who score a perfect 2400 on the SAT. How would we feel if it were revealed that almost all of these rejected top scorers, year after year, were Asian-Americans? I challenge Harvard and Princeton to refute this possibility.

Addendum: this is one of the plaintiffs, who was rejected by Harvard.

17. Applicant’s parents are first-generation immigrants to the United States from China.

18. Applicant graduated from high school ranked 1 out of 460 students by weighted and un-weighted grade point average.

19. U.S. News and World Report ranks Applicant’s high school in the top 5 percent of all high schools in the United States.

20. Applicant achieved a perfect score of 36 on the ACT. Applicant achieved a perfect score of 800 for SAT II History and a perfect score of 800 for SAT II Math. Among other academic achievements, Applicant was named an AP Scholar with distinction, a National Scholar, and a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist.

21. While in high school, Applicant participated in numerous extracurricular and volunteer activities. Among other things, Applicant was captain of the varsity tennis team, volunteered at a community tennis camp, volunteered for the high school’s student peer tutoring program, was a volunteer fundraiser for National Public Radio, and traveled to China as part of a program organized by the United States Consulate General and Chinese American Students Education and Exchange to assist students in learning English writing and presentation skills.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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