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Jason Riley: Harvard’s Asian Quotas Repeat an Ugly History

A popular college ditty during the 1910s began:

Oh, Harvard’s run by millionaires,

And Yale is run by booze,

Cornell is run by farmers’ sons,

Columbia’s run by Jews.

If you thought that sort of bigotry at elite universities was a thing of the past, you might want to reconsider in light of a federal district court ruling last week on Harvard’s admissions policies. It seems the only thing that’s changed over the past century is the group being targeted for exclusion.

In 1914 about 40% of Columbia’s students were Jewish. By 1918 effective quotas had reduced their numbers to 22%. In the 1920s Harvard and Yale would follow Columbia’s lead. Harvard’s freshman class of 1925 was nearly 30% Jewish. The next year it fell to 15% and remained thereabouts for the next two decades.

Today’s concern is the overrepresentation of Asian students on elite campuses and the sneaky ways that colleges go about capping their numbers. In 2014 Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit, sued Harvard, alleging that the school had passed over Asians for admission because of their race. The plaintiffs presented data showing that Asian applicants needed SAT scores that were about 140 points higher than their white peers to be accepted. And they argued that the percentage of Asians admitted to Harvard was suspiciously similar year after year despite dramatic increases in the number of Asian applicants and the size of America’s Asian population.

Asian enrollment at Harvard was 19% in 1992, 18% in 2013, and in the interim always remained roughly between 15% and 20%. By contrast, Asian enrollment at another highly selective school, the California Institute of Technology, grew steadily from 25% to 43% over the same two-decade period. The plaintiffs argued that the disparity in Asian enrollment at the two institutions reflected the fact that Harvard’s admissions process is race-conscious while Caltech’s is race-blind.

It’s bad enough that Judge Allison Burroughs’s decision last week ignored this evidence and blessed Harvard’s admissions policies. What’s equally disturbing is that she also ignored the history. Harvard boasts that it vets applicants using a “holistic” approach that weighs social characteristics as well as test scores. What often goes unmentioned is that Harvard and other schools developed this approach a century ago for the express purpose of excluding Jews.

Back then, Harvard argued that Jews were excellent students with deficient personalities. Their social characteristics were described as “different” and “peculiar.” They were accused of being clannish and focusing on their studies to a fault. Harvard maintained that it was trying to create a certain type of environment on campus, and Jews were a poor fit. “No one suggested the Jewish students threatened academic standards,” wrote Stephen Steinberg in a 1971 Commentary magazine article about Jewish quotas in the Ivy League. “Rather it was argued that the college stood for other things, and that social standards were as important and valid as intellectual ones.” Harvard is still making that argument, and the courts are still indulging it.

In her ruling, Judge Burroughs writes that a “partial cause” of racial disparities in admissions rates is that “Asian American applicants’ disproportionate strength in academics comes at the expense of other skills and traits that Harvard values.” She says it’s “possible” that the Asian applicants “did not possess the personal qualities that Harvard is looking for at the same rate as white applicants.” Moreover, “it would be unsurprising to find that applicants that excel in one area, tend to be somewhat weaker in other areas.” To Jews, such language and reasoning might sound painfully familiar. And if a judge today wrote that blacks or Hispanics excel at sports and have outgoing personalities, so it would be really surprising if they flourished academically as well, liberals would be calling for his head.

Harvard is a private school but receives federal funding. That makes it subject to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws racial discrimination. Supreme Court rulings dating to the 1970s ban “racial balancing” and racial quotas in college admissions. But the court also has said schools may use an applicant’s race as a “plus factor” so long as it isn’t the determining one. The upshot is that colleges find endless ways to discriminate racially without being too obvious about it. And we get rulings like Judge Burroughs’s, which pretends there are “no quotas” in place at Harvard while acknowledging that the school “uses the racial makeup of admitted students to help determine how many students it should admit overall.”

Students for Fair Admissions says it will appeal the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. Until the justices resolve the matter, expect more of the same admissions-office antics and convoluted lower-court decisions. Do we want preferences for favored groups, or equal treatment of individuals? We can’t have both.

Photo credit: By WhoisjohngaltOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Jason Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.

The views expressed in opinion articles are solely those of the author and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by Black Community News.

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One comment

  1. Plain and simple racism is racism