February 5, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 45°F

ColumnsInto Identity

Racial politics in higher ed

On Sept. 30, Harvard University won a lawsuit against Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a conservative legal organization hellbent on wiping out affirmative action programs on college campuses in the U.S. The plaintiffs in the SSFA case accused Harvard of using racial preferences to discriminate against qualified Asian applicants who applied for undergraduate degrees. 

As I’ve noted in previous columns, educational policies that promote racial and ethnic diversity, such as affirmative action, are beneficial to students from underrepresented backgrounds. However, there does seem to be a troublesome gap between the theoretical aims of racial justice initiatives and its practical application. 

I spoke with several Asian students on campus to get their perspectives on this particular case. Most feel as if Harvard admissions officers, despite their good intentions to produce a diverse class, lump together all Asian applicants into a broad category: “Asian-American.” Just like any other racial group, Asians retain tremendously diverse cultures, languages, religions and histories. However, it seems as if none of the unique personal attributes and experiences of Asian applicants make it through a murky admission process that Harvard calls a “holistic review.” 

The most controversial aspect surrounding this lawsuit pertains to the “personal ratings” Harvard officials use to cast away academically qualified Asians. They argue that this “personal rating” is race-neutral and unaffected by their personal biases. However, the data plainly demonstrates that, on average, Asian applicants consistently scored the lowest points on this highly subjective and ambiguous admission criteria. No matter the academic and extracurricular successes of Asian applicants, they could simply be rejected if admission representatives do not find them to be sufficiently “likable,” “kind,” “helpful” and “positive.” 

African-American and Hispanic students receive much higher points on the personal rating metric, even though they, on average, possess lower academic qualifications compared to Asian and white applicants. Here, it seems as if the personal ratings create a racial pecking order that Harvard believes is bureaucratically necessary to create an ideal campus environment. When confronted about the race-oriented nature of the personal ratings, Harvard argued that what mattered more was the student’s personal experiences based on their racial identity, not their race alone. 

Harvard’s assertion that an applicant’s unique experiences stem from their racial background is true. However, Harvard’s admissions practices indicate that race is the central feature when it comes to designing a supposedly inclusive campus. Furthermore, not everyone’s marginalized racial identity is considered worthy enough to benefit from an Ivy League education. Harvard’s admissions officers appeared to have created a perverse suffering hierarchy — black, Hispanic, Asian — that privileges group identity over individual factors, such as class or immigration status. 

Obviously, higher-education institutions that make use of preferences are going to inevitably choose some groups over others. But this process should be as transparent, fair and equitable as possible. Harvard, just like most other selective schools that use preferential treatment, isn’t going to sacrifice its academic caliber for the sake of diversity. But if admission officers are going to continue fetishizing diversity, it shouldn’t come at the expense of Asian students, or any other minorities. 

The condescending language Harvard uses toward Asian applicants should not be overlooked. These administrators are implicitly arguing that Asians are inherently less likable and personable. A look back at Harvard’s history showcases a similarly disturbing controversy: Admissions representatives deliberately and dramatically restricted the number of qualified Jewish students on Harvard’s campus for allegedly having “deficient personalities.” Thankfully, that horribly anti-Semitic episode is now considered a disgrace. Harvard’s discrimination against Asian Americans should be denounced in the same manner, not championed in the name of racial progress