Edward Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is president of Students for Fair Admissions.
The Justice Department confirmed last week that it is examining claims of racial discrimination against Asian Americans in university admissions. It is possible that this will result in investigations and lawsuits targeting our nation’s most competitive schools.
This is a significant and welcome development. If the Justice Department follows through — as it should — what its lawyers will find at Harvard University and other Ivy League schools is an unfair and unconstitutional process that restricts the number of Asians admitted. That should alarm all Americans.
Sadly, Harvard has a long and ugly history of using “holistic” admissions to discriminate against high-achieving minorities. As many historians have detailed, nearly 100 years ago, Harvard’s leadership believed it had too many Jews because almost a quarter of all Harvard freshmen were Jewish.
In 1920, in a letter to a colleague, Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell warned that the increasing number of Jewish students enrolling at Harvard would ultimately “ruin the college.”
To solve their “Jewish invasion,” Harvard invented the “holistic” admissions system, which diminished an applicant’s academic achievements in favor of subjective factors such as “leadership” and “sociability.” Within a year, holistic admissions decimated Jewish enrollment.
Today, Harvard’s discriminatory policies harm Asian Americans — call it the Asian problem. To end this discrimination, Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit group which I lead as president, sued Harvard in federal court.
It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court has allowed universities to grant preferences to applicants based on race and ethnicity. Last year in Fisher v. University of Texas — in which Students for Fair Admissions provided counsel to the plaintiff — the Supreme Court allowed the University of Texas at Austin to continue the practice. Nonetheless, in Fisher and earlier cases, the court has been clear about the how these racial preferences must be implemented: Purposeful quotas and racial balancing are strictly prohibited. And, of course, diversity can never be a justification for invidious discrimination.
Proving that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans is a complex and laborious process that will ultimately play out in open court for all of America to see. But one fact is indisputable: From 1992 through 2013, the percentage of Asians admitted to Harvard each year has been remarkably stable. In 1992, 19 percent of admitted students were Asian, while in 2013, 18 percent were Asian. This is true even though the number of Asian applicants to elite schools have disproportionately risen in recent decades. Research also shows that Asian applicants make up a large percentage of the most qualified applicants.
This rate of admissions for Asians cannot be a coincidence. Just compare Harvard’s percentages with those at another highly competitive school that doesn’t use race as an admissions factor: The California Institute of Technology, for example, has seen Asian American admittees grow from 25 percent in 1992 to nearly 43 percent in 2013.
And Harvard isn’t alone. The same flat rate of Asian admissions is evidenced at all of the Ivy League schools. Indeed, from 2007 to 2013, the enrollment of Asians at every Ivy League school ranged between 12 and 18 percent. Another coincidence?
Since racial and ethnic preferences were introduced in the 1970s, they have been divisive. They stigmatize recipients, punish better-qualified individuals and pit Americans against one another. Most Americans understand this. A 2016 Gallup Poll shows that nearly 7 in 10 Americans (including 57 percent of African Americans) believe that a student’s race should not be a factor in college admissions.
Racial preferences need to end. For our most competitive colleges especially, there are better means to produce a diverse student body than race-based affirmative action.
In states that have banned using race by voter initiative or legislative statutes, many schools have responded by implementing a kind of “socio-economic affirmative action” to assist economically disadvantaged students regardless of race or ethnicity.
This “needs-based affirmative action,” when used with traditional outreach, financial assistance and academic remediation is fairer. It cannot be reasonably argued that in the name of diversity, the daughter of an Asian working-class immigrant should be penalized in her efforts to gain admission to Harvard over the daughter of a successful white, Hispanic or African American professional.
A university is more than the sum of its ethnic parts. It is comprised of individuals — some black, white, Asian and Hispanic — who should be admitted or rejected without their race or ethnic heritage making any difference. Let’s hope the Justice Department agrees.
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