Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
Do Harvard and other elite universities illegally discriminate against Asian American applicants?
I’m not sure. But there’s another group of people who definitely face routine prejudice in college admissions. They’re the quiet types who keep to themselves, often preferring a relaxed evening at home to a rowdy night out. They like to study alone, not in groups. And they’re often the last ones to speak up in class.
I’m talking about introverts, of course. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from reports on the recent lawsuit against Harvard University’s admission system, it’s that introverts routinely get the short end of the stick.
The lawsuit alleges that Harvard has engaged in unlawful “racial balancing” by systematically discriminating against Asian Americans, who were given lower “personality” scores by admission officers. It’s a hard charge to prove. If an Asian applicant received a lower personality score, how can we know if that’s because she was Asian?
We can’t, without evidence. But here’s what seems apparent: Harvard’s “personality” evaluation favors people who are outgoing, gregarious and comfortable in the spotlight: in a word, extroverts.
Consider this example, which the New York Times drew from the hundreds of documents that have been filed in the Harvard lawsuit. An Asian American applicant was described as a “hard worker,” but “would she relax and have any fun?”
Other Asian American candidates were characterized the same way — industrious and high-achieving but often lacking in “distinguishing excellence” (or “DE” in admissions shorthand). Nor were they likely to be seen as “leaders,” the figures who stand out from the crowd by standing in front of it.
And that’s what our elite schools are looking for, unabashedly and unapologetically. When Harvard says it wants people with a “positive personality” who are “widely respected” — two other criteria the Times extracted from the court filings — it’s not talking about the kid who will stay in her dorm room on Saturday night to study or watch a video. Introverts aren’t always shy — sometimes they can be quite chatty — but they also need time alone.
And they definitely don’t need to be the center of attention, which makes them markedly less attractive to admissions committees. Colleges want the applicants who will take the bull by the horns and the campus by storm! That means joining as many groups as possible and ideally being the president of each one. And it means participating in — maybe dominating — every available conversation, in and out of class.
That would be defensible if we knew that extroverts were more intelligent or successful than other people. But they’re not. As Susan Cain shows in her indispensable 2012 book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” extroverts have us snowed. We perceive people who talk a lot — and, especially, those who talk quickly — as more able. And there’s zero evidence for that.
Ditto for the presumption that they make better leaders. As Cain shows, there are plenty of introverts — including Bill Gates and Charles Schwab — who have become famously effective leaders. They govern by example rather than charisma, by listening rather than talking.
Going back to the 1950s, some colleges have argued that the corporations that hire graduates — and that also donate millions to the colleges — preferred the “gregarious, active type,” as one dean told sociologist William Whyte, author of the 1956 classic “The Organization Man.” The dean added: “We see little use for the ‘brilliant’ introvert.”
That’s still generally the case at our selective universities, as recent research on admissions suggests. Never mind that not all of our students intend to enter the corporate world, or that a wealth of research demonstrates that introverts can flourish in that world as much as extroverts can. We want “strong” personalities, who make their mark in public performance rather than behind the scenes.
And we’re sticking with that story, despite evidence that Asians are less likely to display these traits than Westerners are. Cross-cultural studies have demonstrated that people in the East tend to emphasize traits such as humility and hard work, while Americans more often favor cheerfulness and enthusiasm.
So do our admissions policies. I don’t know if that makes them racially discriminatory. But I do know that they’re scientifically indefensible, especially in light of everything we have learned about personality over the past half-century.
This week, the rest of the Ivy League — including my employer, the University of Pennsylvania — closed ranks behind Harvard, defending the use of race in college admissions and emphasizing “the profound importance of a diverse student body for their educational missions,” as the schools wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief. I agree with them. I just wish they were friendly to diverse personalities, not just diverse races. Without that, we’ll end up with students who look different from each other but think and act the same.