Does Harvard discriminate against Asian-American applicants?

I’ve always been in favor of affirmative action, and if that means you must discriminate against some people in favor of others, regardless of “merit” scores like grades and SATs, then so be it. I consider affirmative action to be both a form of reparations issued to those discriminated against in the past (blacks in particular), but also as a way to ensure diversity, which I see as a good part of college. But I’m also in favor of affirmative action based on other aspects of diversity, like family income, politics, viewpoints, ideology, and social class. After all, one wants in college not just exposure to those of different ethnicities, but to those of different backgrounds and ideas.

The Supreme Court has ruled that colleges can take race into account along with other factors in its admissions policies, so long as this doesn’t lead to “race quotas”, similar to the “anti-Jewish quotas” used in the past by schools like Harvard (in the past there was a cap on Jewish students based on anti-Semitic bias).

Whether colleges have in fact adhered to the Supreme Court’s policies is not clear. They do use multiple criteria for admissions, including race, but schools like Harvard have had a remarkably similar ethnic representation over the past several years, implying quotas. Just using grades and other “meritocratic” criteria, as well as extracurricular activities (clubs, social work, and so on), one would predict a higher proportion of Asians and a lower proportion of blacks and Hispanics among entering students than what is actually seen (read below). SSFA claims that if grades and other “meritocratic” criteria were used, the Asian population of Harvard would be 43%; it’s now 23% compared to 6% in the U.S. population as a whole.

But that’s what affirmative action does, and I have no objection to its limited use by universities to ensure diversity. .

Now, however, a group representing Asian students rejected by Harvard, Students for Fair Admissions (SSFA), has taken Harvard to court claiming that Asians are indeed discriminated against (see here, here and here for the particulars and background of the case). SSFA is supported by Trump’s Department of Justice, which opposes affirmative action.

Both sides were heard in Federal district court in Boston yesterday, and it’s a bench trial, so the judge will decide if Harvard violated the Supreme Court’s dictum by having quotas.

Whoever loses will appeal the case, and it’s likely to go to the Supreme Court, where most of us can guess what will happen: the new, more conservative court is likely to dismantle the use of any racial or ethnic features in deciding college admissions.

This case, then, is a landmark case for affirmative action, and the judge forced Harvard (who fought this tooth and nail) to disclose how, exactly, it decides who gets into that prestigious school.

What was revealed seems to be this: while Asian-Americans rank the highest in meritocratic criteria like test scores and grades, as well as extracurricular activities, they were apparently ranked lower than other groups in “personality characteristics.” That is apparently why Harvard is not 43% Asian-American. Further, the personality rankings were lower not from personal interviews conducted by alumni, but from the admissions office itself, who, I think, make such judgments based on written applications alone. I’m not sure how you can judge personality without an interview, but so be it.

Harvard contests this analysis, but I haven’t seen them disputing the statistics. Here’s what the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, reports:

Anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions accused Harvard admissions officers of assigning discriminatory “personal” ratings to Asian-American applicants and attempting to “racially engineer” incoming classes, according to briefings filed in federal court Friday morning.

The briefings marks the latest development in the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard which SFFA first brought in Nov. 2014,

Using statistical analysis and opinions from outside experts—as well as newly public (though heavily redacted) accounts of Harvard’s highly competitive admissions process—SFFA reported that College admissions officers consistently scored Asian-American applicants lower than applicants of other races on “personal traits” like “positive personality,” “likability,” “kindness,” and “humor.”

The personal traits rating is one of several factors the Admissions Office considers when making admissions decisions, according to the court filings. Harvard admissions officers numerically rank applicants for their personal traits on a scale of 1 to 6—1 being the highest, and 6 the lowest.

SFFA filings note that Asian-American applicants to Harvard typically score higher than do applicants of any other race on other factors considered in the admissions process—factors including academics, extracurriculars, and recommendations from teachers and college counselors.

“No rational factfinder could conclude that Harvard’s admissions system complies with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” SFFA argued in its briefing. Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, among other qualities.

Lawyers for the University, in a filing submitted later Friday morning, rejected the notion that any differences in scoring constituted discrimination.

“Nothing in the record suggests any effort by Harvard to limit the number of Asian-American students, which fluctuates considerably from year to year,” Harvard’s filing reads.

Yet an internal Harvard review that was secret until the court forced it to become public showed that Asian students were indeed downgraded on their “personality scores”. As these scores are quite important in the admissions process, this lower ranking undoubtedly contributed to Asian-Americans’ reduced representation in the entering classes. Click on this screenshot from the Harvard Crimson to see the article (emphasis is mine):

Some quotes:

Harvard’s internal research office concluded the College’s admissions policies produce “negative effects” for Asian Americans in a series of confidential reports circulated among top administrators in 2013, according to court documents filed early Friday morning in an ongoing lawsuit against the University.

In the reports, which were never made public, Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research [OIR] also concluded the College’s admissions process advantages legacy students and athletes more than it does low-income students.

In one 2013 report, OIR employees wrote that “Asian high achievers have lower rates of admission.” In others, OIR found that Asian American applicants earned consistently lower “personal” ratings from Harvard admissions officers than did applicants of other races despite earning consistently higher rankings for their academic records and tests scores.

. . . Following a period of information gathering in late 2012 and early 2013, OIR wrote a report titled “Admissions and Financial at Harvard College.” In addition to examining issues of gender and early action admissions, the report was specifically meant to address the question: “Does the admissions process disadvantage Asians?”

Using 10 years of admissions demographic data and logistic regression models, OIR (Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research) created a model that estimated the probability of admission for individuals based on certain characteristics.

This model included estimated demographic breakdowns of classes admitted given different weighting of various characteristics used to evaluate applicants. One of the breakdowns considered the demographics of a class that would be admitted if Harvard judged only by rankings and ratings of academics success.

Under this scenario, “the percentage of Asians would more than double to 43 percent,” according to SFFA’s Friday filings. SFFA’s document alleges representatives from OIR met with Fitzsimmons to present its findings and that Fitzsimmons took little—if any—further action to address the report.

“Following this presentation, Dean Fitzsimmons [William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions] did not request any additional work from OIR into whether Asian-American applicants were being disadvantaged in response to the February 2013 Report,” the document states. “Dean Fitzsimmons did not share or discuss the February 2013 Report with anyone else in the Admissions Office or any senior leaders outside the Admissions Office.”

It looks, then, as if a.) Harvard did given Asian-Americans lower personality scores, and this accounts at least in part for the fact that they constitute only 23% of the entering class instead of more than 40%, and b.) Dean Fitzsimmons covered up this report, or at least did not pursue it.

I can’t find any explicit denial by Harvard that Asian-Americans were indeed given lower personality scores than were members of other groups. This then leaves Harvard in a double bind. They must then admit one of two possibilities, neither of which makes Harvard look good:

a. Harvard deliberately downgraded Asian-Americans in their personality scores as a way of keeping them from constituting too great a fraction of the entering class (this would be an illegal use of “quotas”).


b. Harvard sees Asian-Americans as having less attractive personalities as potential students than do members of other ethnic groups.

The fact that the personality downgrading was done by the admissions office rather than personal interviewers, who could actually talk to the students, supports scenario a.

Either way, Harvard looks bad—and I’m not even talking about their preferential admission of athletes and the children of alumni (“legacy admissions”), which is something Harvard doesn’t want to talk about.

This case is a precedent because it’s the first time in recent years that a minority group has claimed it has been discriminated against in admissions because of preferential admission of whites and other groups.

I have no way of knowing how it will come out, except that the judge, appointed by Obama, has a reputation as a liberal, and so may rule for Harvard. But that won’t be the end of it. This case will no doubt work its way up to the Supreme Court, and their decision will be the definitive ruling on affirmative action by race in American colleges.

I’m interested in readers’ reaction here, so read the background material above and please comment below.


  1. mikeyc
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    We will always be fighting this fight as long as admittance is subjective. “Likability”? “Sense of humor”? These are qualifying criteria for a dating app, not admission to University.

    This is one of those difficult issues with fairness being the argument both sides use. The problem is that admittance to University is ALWAYS discriminatory. It must be, except where there are no qualifications and everyone who applies gets accepted. What everyone is arguing about is who gets discriminated against.

    If it goes to SCOTUS Affirmative Action as we know will be dead.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Affirmative action as we know it is unfortunately not about tearing down artificial barriers, but rather erecting them.

      Good riddance.

  2. Malgorzata
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink


  3. Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I’ve always been in favor of affirmative action, …

    I’m slightly surprised; I think there’s a lot to be said for MLK’s “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”.

    If Kavanaugh et al outlaw affirmative action then I’d be ok with that.

    • Martin X
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Outlawing AA doesn’t mean that we’ll automatically get character-based admissions.

  4. andrewilliamson
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Racist means to justify “non racist” ends.

    In this case, though, the end result ends up being racist as well. This is because the groups that enter with lower standards will not perform as well, which fuels stereotypes (Bayesian priors) everyone will have that members of those groups are less competent.

    They also stand a greater chance of not graduating, and (I suspect but haven’t seen data on) will tend to migrate out of the “precision majors” (engineering, math, physics, biology, etc) into the soft, subjective majors.

    If you are a competent member of a group faced with easier standards, other people’s Bayesian priors will rationally assume you are less competent than you are, so you by default will face the uphill fight of having to force them to update their priors and recognize your competence.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      This (in non-Bayesian terms) is one reason philosopher Susan Haack is skeptical of affirmative action too.

    • eric
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      the end result ends up being racist as well. This is because the groups that enter with lower standards will not perform as well

      I’m skeptical that this is the case here. I doubt there are many poorly-academic performing people applying to Harvard in the first place; I expect most people applying to Harvard could do well there, if they can get in. But even if that’s not the case for all applicants, Harvard gets 20x more applications than they have spots. So even if only 10% of applicants are “able to perform well” they still have double the number of applicants they could choose from than they have spots; selecting some people by nonacademic traits could still be accomplished with no lowering of performance.

      It’s IMO simply not the case that for 1,600 spots, applicant #1601 will have a significantly lower performance than applicant #1600. More than likely, applicant #16,000 would do just as well as applicant #160, because every applicant to Harvard is pretty close to top of their class.

      Personally, I’m leaning more towards a pseudo-lottery approach, where schools like Harvard set the bar for getting into the lottery based on empirical research as to what sort of academic background is needed to do well at the school, and then use random draw or some sociological factors modifying a random draw (you don’t want a school that’s 90% men, for instance) to select from that pool. And I don’t mind if race is in that mix. It seems to me doing it that way is much more honest and transparent than making up a perosonality factor in order to pretend your selection is quantitatively rigorous. And I think this would have the benefit of giving back lots of free time to our high schoolers, who right now feel a constant need to overachieve since no matter how well they do, a University can always claim they’re looking for better. Let them hit a high but reasonable academic mark that proves they’re ready for a rigorous undergrad program, and leave it at that. Don’t try and judge whether wunderkid 2501’s hit single demonstrates better ‘performance’ is better than wunderkid 4367’s bestselling new bread slicer. They both can make it. You know it. I know it. Harvard knows it. Trying to quantify that difference in terms of academic performance is just getting into absurdity.

      • andrewilliamson
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        ” So even if only 10% of applicants are “able to perform well” they still have double the number of applicants they could choose from than they have spots”

        Except that there are a lot of slots where they are NOT taking those who are able to perform AS well. That’s the issue. Some can, but others can’t, and they drag down the average (and end up near the bottom).

        There is some oft-cited evidence that blacks at MIT would end up at the bottom in some of the classes (math?), and even failed to graduate, not because they weren’t talented, but because they weren’t nearly talented enough, by comparison. They were in the top percentiles, just not in the top fraction of one percent, and that meant they ended up at the bottom.

        Amy Wax of UPenn makes the same claim of students there, and their grading is all blind.

        I have seen no evidence that suggests this is not the case, and it is certainly the intuitive expectation: if you have top 1 percenters competing with top 5 percenters on objective-answer subjects, 5 percenters will not fare as well.

        Happy to look at additional evidence, though.

        • Adam M.
          Posted October 16, 2018 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

          You could even both be right. It could be the case that Harvard, as our most prestigious university, can fill 15% of their class with excellent and capable black students, but it could also be the case that they’ll have siphoned off a disproportionately large percentage of such students, so that when you get down to the good but not super famous universities that most people go to there just aren’t enough left to provide blacks proportional representation while also maintaining the average performance of the class.

          I think it’s guaranteed that if one group on average performs significantly better than another academically (as Asians do versus whites and whites do versus blacks) that either they won’t have proportional representation or you’ll run out of good students from the worse groups faster – exponentially so, I think – and have to accept below average candidates to achieve proportional representation.

        • eric
          Posted October 16, 2018 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

          The graduation rate for first-time, four-year Harvard students is >97%. At MIT, it’s >91%. Those are great numbers.
          Empirically it appears you’re wrong and I’m right in this; as the university itself says “Everyone admitted to Harvard has the ability to complete all academic requirements successfully.”

          If you want to tell me that blacks do worse at Harvard…data, please.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      so you by default will face the uphill fight of having to force them to update their priors and recognize your competence.

      Emphasis on “force”, I think, because not everyone is a Bayesian.


    • Samedi
      Posted October 17, 2018 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      Good analysis. In systems theory this phenomenon is called “fixes that fail”. Basically, it describes an action that appears to solve a problem in the short only to create a larger problem in the long run.

      AA may have caused another problem as well. A while back Jerry wrote about a 1969 letter by Judge Fleming predicting the likely results of admitting unqualified students: agitation and aggressive conduct. The radicalization of part of the student body, leading to the behavior discussed frequently here, might, therefore, be directly attributable to AA.

      • Davide Spinello
        Posted October 17, 2018 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        This effect is also amplified by the fact that students admitted with non-competitive credentials tend to switch to “the studies,” (see here) where they are told a few times how the patriarchy and systemic racism (at Yale in the year 2018) are preventing them from succeeding in STEM. The only logical consequence (within “the studies”) is that science is racist.

      • Merilee
        Posted October 17, 2018 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        I took a bunch of very competitive premed classes at a Stanford in the early 70s. I remember a group of maybe 6 or 7 black students who sat together in the back and were very overtly cheating during a test or exam. Stanford was known for its very strict Honor Code and I’m not quite sure how the issue was handled. I felt bad for the black kids, who I think were out of their depth. They had probably not had as good preparation in high school as most of the white kids. On the other hand, all the courses were graded on the curve, so it was a bit of a zero-sum game. No easy answers. That article by Thomas Sowell, himself a black man, I think made some good points about it not doing kids in the 75th percentile any favors to be thrown in with the 99th percentile. (I’m not generally a huge fan of Sowell’s, but I think I agree with him here).

        • Posted October 17, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          I was (as a white kid, as it happens) always pushing myself to be in the “top” for special things and often fell out of it eventually. At every stage these “very good but not excellent” students were a problem, regardless of race or sex or anything else: you want to challenge them, you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but enrichment, etc. can penalize because of time needed to do it, subtle grading biases, etc. No easy answers.

          • Merilee
            Posted October 17, 2018 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

            Yes, Sowell mentioned the large variance in time required to absorb material and complete assignments. I was very much aware of this challenge as a high school math teacher, especially with some parents pileing on that I was moving too quickly or too slowly.
            Moving from the top of my high school class to Stanford was a major shock. I was nowhere near the top any more but also, fortunately, nowhere near the bottom. 15% As, 35%Bs, 35%Cs, and 15% Ds and Fs was the curve in my day. I managed to stay mainly in the Bs, with some As and Ca thrown in for good measure🤓

  5. Eric Grobler
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    “But I’m also in favor of affirmative action based on other aspects of diversity, like family income, politics, viewpoints, ideology, and social class.”

    This is a very difficult issue that perhaps requires a common sense solution which is in short supply.

    I often think of Hungary before the war.
    I cannot remember the extact figures, but Jews were only around 12% of the population while producing 70 to 90% of graduates in many important disciplines.
    Would you just let it be or have a discriminatory quota system against Jews? Imagine losing the latent of a Von Neumann.

    (In the US Feynman was barred from many top universities because of the quota system)

    The problem I see with affirmative action is that the assumption is made that some minorities are underrepresented ONLY because of past injustice.

    If we cannot have an honest discussion about gender and ethnic differences we will have a lot of resentment and unrealistic goals.

    • mikeyc
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      We are not allowed to even ask those questions, Eric, much less discuss them. We’ll have to address these issues without that knowledge.

      • Eric Grobler
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Sometimes I have this apocalyptic vision that we will end with apartheid lite gender/race institutions.
        A univercity for black women and another for Japanese men, a queer hispanic college etc.

        • Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

          The miracle of 20th C America was that this didn’t happen: German and Polish and Irish identities were reduced to not much more than preferences for slightly different kinds of sausages.

          But the forces which made this happen were immense: Conscription for two world wars. Near-zero immigration for 40 years (in an age when even airmail was unaffordable). And towering cultural confidence in being the richest strongest country ever.

        • Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

          When I was in high school in Canada there was a serious effort to have all schooling done in other languages. So Polish immigrants get Polish schools, etc. utter madness, but seriously argued!

  6. Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I can’t imagine how Harvard (and other elite private colleges) will argue their way out of this damning graph [disclosure, I am an Indian American]. See the chart titled “Californi dreaming” at this Economist link.

    To quote,

    “They point to Asians’ soaring academic achievements and to the work of Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford of Princeton, who looked at the data on admissions and concluded that Asian-Americans need 140 SAT points out of 1,600 more than whites to get a place at a private university, and that blacks need 310 fewer points. Yet in California, where public universities are allowed to use economic but not racial criteria in admissions, 41% of Berkeley’s enrolments in 2014 were Asian-Americans and at the California Institute of Technology 44% were (see chart).”

    • andrewilliamson
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      I have seen those stats many times, and they do seem jarring.

      What just occurred to me, though, is that they probably average in a) athletes and b) legacies.

      Both these groups will have lower than average scores. Also, athletes are unlikely to be “racially representative.”

      Factoring out these two groups that receive preferential treatment, and I’ll be the average score gaps decrease significantly.

      • andrewilliamson
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink


      • Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        Good point.

        That economist article also gives a breakdown of where people come from. For the US, but not for Harvard etc admissions, which would be interesting.

        Asian still seems like a really strange category to me, why on earth do Chinese and Indians have in common? I wonder whether part of the trick of defusing this might be to stop lumping them together…

  7. Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    An institution can limit over-achieving minorities in two ways. A percentage lid as Harvard once used for jews, or invent some phony-baloney subjective criterion as it now apparently does with students of asian ancestry. A cruel reward for being a member of a compliant “model minority.” Both policies are very wrong. Whether this sort of thing is the inevitable result of affirmative action, I don’t know.

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      The use of the phony-baloney subjective criteria in the sacred cause of Diversity was the inevitable outcome of three factors. Only one was Affirmative Action taken as a pragmatic policy. The second was the Supreme Court’s rulings against overt racial quotas. The third and decisive factor has been the sanctification of “Diversity” to a sacred cause, elevated to a holier level than little things like honesty, logical consistency, or adherence to fact. This outlook is now commonplace in the academic world. Haven’t we known for years that the admissions offices were using phony-baloney tricks to maintain Affirmative Action without seeming to use overt racial quotas?

  8. Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I cannot remember my sources but it’s been known for a long time (~15 years) the admissions policies at both Berkeley and Stanford have selected against Asian Americans for a while otherwise their freshman classes would be substantially more Asian.

    None of my Asian friends are not aware that their kids have to match a higher standard to beat out the same ‘white’ kid when it comes to a handful of schools. They are not naive.

    Many people are aware of the games universities play, but they also know how to play the games too. For every disadvantage to someone, there are other opportunities out there.

  9. Merilee
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink


  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    The Supreme Court has ruled that colleges can take race into account along with other factors in its admissions policies …

    I suspect those precedents will be the first to fall, post-Kavanaugh.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      I think people underestimate the institutional conservatism of the Supreme Court, and that they dislike reversing themselves. The Justices are not guided merely by their politics and personal beliefs.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        Affirmative action has been hanging by a thread for a couple decades now. Before she retired, Justice O’Connor even suggested putting a twilight provision on it. It’s also a line of cases that Chief Justice Roberts — who in other areas might act as a moderating influence on his conservative colleagues — has been a vocal critic of. The Court’s new majority will have no qualms over abandoning it.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Wouldn’t surprise me to see the new majority use such cases to establish some new precedent regarding the abandonment of precedent, to pave the Appian Way for the overruling of Roe.

      • Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        I had thought about that sort of thing when someone first taught me about stare decisis and the insistence that it must be allowed to even enthrone mistakes. I wondered then too how on earth *that* got settled.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      But that, right now and into the future, benefits white folk like Kavanaugh. If Yale, for example, finds itself in a position where >40% of it’s most qualified applicants are Asian, they can use their demographic-race policy to limit that number to something less in order to warrant the admission of less qualified white students.

  11. DrBrydon
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I have mixed feelings about affirmative action. In general I feel it is wrong to try to redeem past action by slighting individuals in the present (except where the institution’s recent leadership has engaged indiscriminatory practices). I can see where Harvard might not want 43% of its student body to be Asian, but at the same time I wonder what does it matter? It only matters if race is viewed as the only determinant of who they are. Asians represent a spectrum of cultural, religious, political, and sexual viewpoints and identities. Race is reductionist. Ultimately, though, I think a college does a disservice to itself and its students, if it doesn’t select students who are likely to be happy and successful there, and I have to think that academics are a big part of that.

  12. ladyatheist
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    This isn’t a condemnation of Harvard. It’s a condemnation of all the parents of children from other ethnic groups who have let their kids focus on football and video games instead of academic achievement.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      That’s a good point, but it suggests that if kids are brought up so tightly wound around academic success we may end up with graduates without well rounded personalities. Being exposed to music and sport can broaden personality, I think, and probably make people more creative problem solvers.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      I remember when Amy Chua was called Tiger Mom for bringing up her children in the strict, traditional Chinese way. I cringed when she described forbidding sleep-overs with other children. What would become of her kids? Will they become highly competent but lack interpersonal skills? Will they be recreationally crippled?

      • Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        The Amy Chua book I highly recommend here is World On Fire, 2003.

        It’s essentially about extreme tensions which exist in many poorer countries, between a resentful majority and a very successful minority, often recent arrivals. I hadn’t realised quite how widespread this pattern was.

        The elephant in the room with this case seems to be whether America risks falling into such a pattern too.

    • phil brown
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Or a condemnation of unequal provision in schooling, with black kids more likely to go to struggling schools, and their parents less likely to have the resources to provide extra tuition.

      • Rita Prangle
        Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:18 am | Permalink


      • Posted October 31, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        I think that the causality is inversed, i.e. schools with higher percentage of black kids tend to become struggling.

  13. Davide Spinello
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I think that the main problem is the forced hypocrisy on the institutions, that have to come up with contorted explanations to reconcile the obvious discriminatory (and racist) measures with the fact that these measures are discriminatory and racist.

    I think that it would be beneficial to stop using obfuscating language, and clearly state that in order to advance and maintain a certain target demographics we morally accept to put in place discriminatory measures that overall produce a positive benefit for the society.

    In the same spirit, we should clearly write on certain job openings “only women are allowed to apply”, and/or “only people of color are allowed to apply”. A fully disclosed set of rules would in my opinion shift the debate to the substance of the acceptability of racist measures versus the benefit for the society, rather than focusing on pointless “your institution is racist although it cannot be racist” (pointless because the measures we are discussing are by definition racist.)

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      “In the same spirit, we should clearly write on certain job openings “only women are allowed to apply”, and/or “only people of color are allowed to apply”.”

      Good point about hypocrisy but do we really want to live in a society where discrimination is based on gender, race and sexual issues??

      What is wrong with meritocracy?

      • Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        One problem is the aggegration of values problem: there is no one value (e.g.) “being a good student”. There are many things, like intellectual curiousity and study habits. I am much better at the former than the latter, alas, for a personal example.

        • Eric Grobler
          Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          good point

        • Posted October 31, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think that the phony-baloney criteria that punish the overachievers and promote the underachievers include any rewards for intellectual curiosity.

      • Davide Spinello
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        Good point about hypocrisy but do we really want to live in a society where discrimination is based on gender, race and sexual issues??

        Personally I don’t, but the current implementation of affirmative action is discriminatory, racist and sexist anyway. My point is that I would prefer to see openly discriminatory job posts rather than “This company/institution is committed to increasing* diversity and inclusion”

        *increasing may mean that only a target demographic will be considered, but we cannot tell you which one because we are not sexist and racist.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted October 16, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          “increasing may mean that only a target demographic will be considered, but we cannot tell you which one because we are not sexist and racist.”

          Nicely put!


    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      How do you figure a “fully disclosed set of rules” would pass constitutional muster in the courts?

      To paraphrase Yossarian, that Equal Protection clause is some catch.

      • Davide Spinello
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        OK, then no affirmative action. In the current form we have to listen to legalese explanations for racist and other discriminatory measures that cannot be called racist because otherwise they would not be allowed.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

          Well, one possibility would be for congress to rejigger Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to eliminate it’s coverage of higher-education as an institution of public accommodation. That would result in the Equal Protection clause still applying to public universities, but not to private schools (the same way the First Amendment’s free-speech protections apply to public, but not private, universities).

          That would allow private schools like Harvard to experiment with various formulae for affirmative action. As currently composed, however, congress lacks the will to do any such thing.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            “its coverage”

      • Davide Spinello
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Ahah I missed the catching reference earlier, good one.

  14. Steve Gerrard
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    SAT scores are not the be-all and end-all of admission criteria. Their correlation to academic success is not that great. That is especially true for students who have been explicitly trained to score high on SAT tests. It would be nice to see some research on just how good is the SAT as a predictor of academic success, and what other factors enter into it.

    While public universities should stick to standardized admission processes because they are publicly funded, I hope private colleges and universities can retain the right to select their incoming classes based on a wide range of criteria. There are lots of clever intelligent people who do not score particularly well on multiple choice exams. It would be a shame to homogenize American colleges and universities across the board.

    • Taz
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      Their correlation to academic success is not that great.

      High School GPA has a much higher correlation.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      The discrimination against overachiever groups is not motivated by desire to let in clever intelligent people and, as far as I know, does not result in letting them in.
      In my culture, there are gender quotas in most universities and schools. Girls work harder, perform much better and, like Asian Americans at Harvard, are forced to compete between themselves so that boys avoid the logical consequences of their laziness. On top of this, female A students are stereotyped as studying mechanically, without understanding, and boys are perceived as intelligent.

  15. Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I’ve had leftists tell me flat out that asians ‘don’t count’ as minorities because they obviously aren’t oppressed, seeing as how well they do.

    Harvard’s underhanded tinkering with its racial composition is surely about several factors. But the sociopolitical milieu that enables such tinkering is grounded in the odious doctrine of equality of outcome, not of opportunity.

    • Adam M.
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      I thought it was interesting how Asians frequently don’t count (or “count” as white), but Sarah Jeong is an oppressed person of color.

      I think they only count sometimes, depending on whether it’s useful for them to count…

      • mikeyc
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        In the Oppression Olympics what matters most is your seeding.

      • Davide Spinello
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        She has pink hair so she must be oppressed.

      • Posted October 31, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        They count when it is useful for someone else that they count. Sarah Jeong counts as oppressed because she picks on whites, and for the “progressives” this is a virtue.

  16. Adam M.
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I think affirmative action in education is the one place where I might support it, since students don’t really need to depend on each other to succeed (i.e. if somebody else is poorly qualified that doesn’t hurt you and might even make you look better by comparison), and education is probably the thing most likely to help underperforming minorities perform better.

    But in other parts of society? I have a hard time understanding how “diversity is our strength” especially when the diversity they really care about is based on skin color and sex, and not viewpoints and ideas.

    How does it increase the strength of a firefighting team to hire people too weak to carry a ladder, hose, or body, or to chop down a door, or people who don’t understand how fire spreads (i.e. people who don’t meet the physical or intellectual standards, which are being eliminated to foster such diversity)?

    How does it increase the literal strength of an infantry platoon when some people lack the strength to can’t carry even their own equipment over a march, or when medics can’t carry a body, or when an engineer can’t carry the toolbox? How does it help cohesion when some people stand by while others do the hard work of digging trenches, unloading ammunition crates, setting up tents, etc, or when others don’t meet even the minimum physical requirements that you are held to? (Most women in the military don’t, so the requirements are not enforced for them.)

    How does it increase the strength of a medical team to add people who did very poorly on their MCATs and struggled in medical school?

    How does it increase the strength of a software development team to hire people who do a very poor job of programming?

    I might not mind attempts to get people into better careers if they were honest about it, but we should call things what they are. Lowering standards does not make us stronger. Prioritizing skin color and sex over ability does not make us stronger.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      In particlar, K-12 education. It is inequality in K-12 education, due to the way we fund it, that makes affirmative action necessary in higher education and beyond. Addressing unequal K-12 funding is the crucial need, but I don’t know that it can be done in a Federal system that makes State and Local government responsible for funding it.

      • Les Faby
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. The real solution is to have high quality K-12 education for all. You can’t pretend someone is prepared to take advantage of a demanding college education without that.
        It is like breaking someone’s leg and then offering them a slot in the Olympics to make it up to them.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      “How does it increase the strength…”

      I agree with you, however there are some diciplines where you might want to have ethnic/gender representation such as
      police and social workers.

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Maybe Harvard can give those qualified Asian kids some of the spots currently reserved for lamebrained legacy admissions and the mediocre spawn of big-dollar donors (like Charles Kushner’s boy, Jared).

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      I agree, but it may be difficult to wean Harvard (and other universities) off parents’ money.

  18. Raymond Cox
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I think affirmative action is justified if it causes admittance of students whose entry qualifications do not reflect their potential
    because of poor schools or a home environment which is not conducive to academic achievement. If this was the case, students admitted under such dispensation would have grades in the final two years in college – where any effect of previous education should be minimal – which were similar to those with better qualifications on admission. I have never seen this question addressed except anecdotally, which leads me to suspect either that the question is considered too sensitive to be even investigated, or that the results would provide arguments against affirmative action.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that you cannot measure potential. I think that it is not justified to deny a chance to a more qualified applicant and invest in a poorly performing one just because of an arbitrary expectation that the latter has hidden potential.

  19. Carl Morano
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Affirmative action is immoral regardless if it is legal. To even judge a human on skin pigment is the lowest, crudest form of discrimination. Diversity is not a virtue. Diversity of ideas and skills is good but diversity of shoe sizes, hair color or any visual attributes that contribute nothing to thought, perspective or skill level is worthless. To try to help one ‘group’ over another ‘group’ or an individual, regardless of past injustices, is futile and impossible on an objective, moral level. Sorry to see Jerry so irrationally and tribally ideological on this issue.

    • mikeyc
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Well, the argument is that those “visual attributes” (as you put it), often reflect a “diversity of ideas and skills”. IOW, it isn’t their skin color they want, it’s their perspective and outlook that comes along with it. This is not a crude or low concept, but implementing it has consequences that are much too similar to the problem it is trying to solve. There’s the rub.

      • Richard
        Posted October 17, 2018 at 6:05 am | Permalink

        Except that today it seems that universities (and the students attending them) do NOT want any diversity of ideas, opinions or political viewpoints. Everyone is expected to subscribe to the politically-correct dogma of the Regressive Left, and woe betide anyone who strays from that straight and narrow path.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      “To even judge a human on skin pigment is the lowest, crudest form of discrimination. ”

      Sure, but a strong case can me made that a specfic group should receive positive discrimination to “reset” society such as in the immediate aftermath of Apartheid.

      This question is not as simple as you seem to believe – however I agree in principle.

      The problem from my perspective is that their are innate group difference, they are generaly small but they are serious enough to cause serious problems.

      The example I gave above is that Jews outperformed and dominated Hungarians by a large margin in the 1920/30’s causing serious resentment.

      How would you address a hypothetical scenario where a visible minority such as whites in South Africa produce 90% of software engineers while being only 8% of the population?

      You might not be tribal, but most people are, it is dangerous to ignore human nature.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Spoken like someone who just landed on planet Earth in a flying saucer from outer space. The sad fact of the matter is that “judg[ing] human[s] on skin pigmentation” has been with us here on the North American continent for centuries even before there was a United States of America, and it’s left a horrible legacy of racism and discrimination in its wake.

      You can’t call a baseball game fair if only one team gets to bat for seven innings, and then, long about the seventh-inning stretch, you announce you’ve measured the base-paths and the strike-zone and everything’s even-Steven, so we’re gonna play the game fair-and-square the rest of the way out.

      Affirmative action is a legal morass, and there’re no easy answers. But it does no good to take to your moral soapbox to accuse those, like our host, who want to do something about it of irrationality and tribalism.

      • Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        The problem with your baseball metaphor, Ken, is that the members of the team that wasn’t allowed to hit for the first seven innings are no longer with us. The true thrust of Affirmative Action is that, because of that skewed and unfair game, all future games involving that team are now going to be allowed to go seven innings without the other side hitting.

        But I can see this isn’t an issue we’re going to agree upon. Does that mean you and I can finally start being impolite to each other?😊

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted October 16, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          We cool long as I don’t crack Coleridge jokes, right? 🙂

          • Posted October 16, 2018 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

            Right. Kubla Kahn, but you can’t.😊

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted October 16, 2018 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

              Anything Kubla Khan do, Blake khan do better.

              (I kid; Coleridge is my favorite Romantic poet. I like Blake and Byron, too, though Wordsworth and Keats leave me a bit cool.) 🙂

              • Posted October 16, 2018 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

                The quality of his poetry aside, Wordsworth suffered from the one quality in a human being that I find insufferable—namely, self-rightousness. This in contrast to Coleridge, who was a flawed human being, but wonderfully flawed.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, Mr. Morano, but I believe that we need to make up for the wrongs done to certain groups in the past, wrongs that have left a lasting legacy that needs fixing. Schools need to be upgraded, and I think affirmative action is another way to help level the playing field.

      That is my argument, and if you think that I am being “irrational” and “Tribally ideological” by saying that, then you don’t belong on this site. You can apologize, which I suspect you won’t do, or you can leave. The choice is yours.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I agree, but you should have skipped or edited the last sentence.

  20. Taz
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I have no way of knowing how it will come out, except that the judge, appointed by Obama, has a reputation as a liberal, and so may rule for Harvard.

    I don’t think “liberal” necessarily means ruling for Harvard. The charge of discrimination should be decided on its own merits, not on the basis of “the end justifies the means”.

  21. Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Here’s one perspective: One of Harvard’s main goals has always been to admit those who will go on to make up the ruling class, some of whom will be self-made men of great talent. But not only: powerful families are going to matter. Race and religion are going to matter, because they matters to voters. These are brute facts about the country. You don’t have to like them, but it’s hopeless to think that Harvard could change them alone.

    They also admit some promising scientists, that the leaders might know them (and so that the faculty can have offspring) and children of foreign leaders. I don’t know why they care about sportsmen, since they can’t hope to have the great ones, and anyway their careers are so short.

    I think this largely explains the reluctance to admit smart Jewish kids in the 20s. The Wasp establishment had power sewn up. But as they gained real power & prestige in the world outside (e.g. in law firms and in finance) then educating their kids was a different proposition, and things changed.

    I’m not sure this is wrong, actually. It’s not just another teaching college, it’s part of the power structure of the US. And while this doesn’t exactly turn on a dime, it has a pretty good track record of incorporating new arrivals. Nobody who almost got into Harvard lacks for education. And conversely, they don’t exactly have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find candidates from whatever minority group they wish to have more of: they get first pick.

    Whether their current strategies for achieving this are just inside or just outside the law is another question. The personality numbers are obviously fabrications to try to do so… which seems like a bit of a silly charade really.

    What happens at other colleges seems like a completely different question. What should U Texas do, and why? It may nevertheless be altered by whatever the courts find here.

    For discussion of the legalities, as well as the moral questions, I highly recommend that you listen to Glenn Loury & Amy Wax on this:

    • Davide Spinello
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I highly recommend that podcast episode too (and that podcast in general.)

  22. pablo
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    There was a prescient quote by a professor in the 1960s’-i wish I could remember who- it said that by admitting students not equipped to compete at the elite level, universities would quickly see demands for degree programs in which what matters is not scholarship, but the race and sex of those students.

  23. Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a minority, but I suspect I’m going to be one on this issue—at least on this site. I’m opposed to Affirmative Action. I fully understand the reparation argument, but I can’t accept reparation based on being a member of a group regardless of whether a given individual in that group has been disadvantaged relevant to the context in question. E.g., under Affirmative Action an African-American applicant who has had the same cultural and educational advantages as a white can be given priority over the white based on the historical grievances of African-Americans, regardless of the relative merit of the two applicants. This, IMO, is wrong.

    Hypocritical as it may seem, I can’t say that I’m unhappy about the diversity in universities that has resulted from this policy, but I nevertheless find it indefensible on principle. Affirmative action was never a sound policy and is even less so nowadays when people can self-identify as pretty much whatever they choose. It needs to go.

  24. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Sadly it is a lose-lose situation.
    There are good arguments in favour of affirmative action, and there are good ones against it.
    The Dutch used (I’m not sure they still do) a lottery system, albeit a weighed one: the higher you achievements the more ‘tickets’ in the lottery. I do not think that is really fair either, but at least it gets rid of most of the subjectivity and prejudices.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

      And exchanges it for chance. I rather go with a human decision. Accepting the risk of prejudices.

  25. Posted October 16, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    The court has ruled on AA several times and so there is now a reasonably clear explication of the justification the court uses. It is NOT to recompense for past discrimination. Repeat, it is NOT to make up for past wrongs. The accepted justification is that diversity benefits *other* students, that it benefits the student body and school as a whole.
    That might make Harvard’s case stronger legally if — if — they are willing to argue that excluding Asians makes the school a better place. Good luck with that.

  26. Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    If anyone gets to argue “we need to do this for the sake of diversity”, it’s not Harvard. The 2022 class is 47% white. If that’s not a problem, what’s wrong with 40% Asian?

    OTOH, I fully support affirmation action based on income and educational background. Students from low-income households or poorly funded school districts deserve to get preferential treatment regardless of race. This policy will be pro-diversity and reparationary in its effect, but without all the hypocrisy needed to maintain an outright race-based policy.

    I don’t know what SSFA wants. If they are only suing to gut the (in my view morally indefensible) race-based admission while giving the Supreme Court no opportunity to rule on income-based affirmation action, then it may not be such a bad thing.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Do you mean that 47% is a large block, or that it’s much less than reflecting the population already?

      Re household income, note that most groups of Asian-americans already score above the US mean. But how wealthy to the parents of kids who almost get into Harvard are, Asian vs White, that’s possibly quite different, and would be interesting to know.

      • Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        47% is a large block. Yes it under-represents whites in the general population (which is over 60%, I think). But I don’t think proportional representation is what diversity means. You can argue that not having a dominant ethnicity on campus is good for the students (which is how the diversity argument has been used in courts). You can’t argue that a proportional representation, however one-sided it is, is good for the students.

    • Adam M.
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s because if Asians constituted 43% of the student body they’d have to hugely cut into the already underrepresented white population or else make significant cuts to the non-white, non-Asian groups which are the ones that really matter when it comes to increasing “diversity”. The latter would likely be politically untenable, and the former… well, they’d have to come up with an equally convoluted system to keep those whites out as they do for Asians today.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      You want a non-raced based policy of racial preference. Interesting position.

      Affirmative action based on income and school district quality. That is not a workable solution. That does not get the best students accepted.

      • Posted October 17, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        AA doesn’t mean you have to admit unqualified students. Between two more or equally qualified students (and I’m sure all Harvard and nearly-Harvard students are more or less equally qualified), if you can only take one, take the one who has overcome greater odds to be where s/he is. It is workable, fair, and, even if your goal is just to admit the better student, it is still the sensible thing to do.

        • Posted October 17, 2018 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

          Students from low income households and poorer school districts do not and should not deserve better treatment.

          • Posted October 17, 2018 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

            Do not deserve and should not get better treatment

  27. Posted October 16, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I consider affirmative action to be both a form of reparations issued to those discriminated against in the past (blacks in particular), but also as a way to ensure diversity, which I see as a good part of college.

    I completely disagree with the first justification of affirmative action above.

    You can’t repair the damage done to a black student from ten or twenty years ago, who was denied a place in a top university because they were black, by giving a relatively free ride to some other black person who they probably don’t even know.

    If you want to give reparations, you have to give them to the people who were wronged, not some other people who are in the same group.

    There are good reasons for affirmative action. Improving diversity is one. Correcting for biases in the system that produces candidates is another. But reparations for previous generations of wronged students is not one.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      I agree with your example, and want to agree with the whole comment, but there is a flaw in the argument. Poverty is heritable. This can accumulate over generations, so that black children are born poor in part because of laws in effect generations ago. This argument does not apply to all groups, and does not apply to women or to gays. This makes the argument for favoring blacks more complex.

      • Posted October 16, 2018 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        Reparations only to poor black people. That is not complex.

        • Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

          It’s not as simple as you seem to think. Poor black people whose ancestors were not slaves in America? At the expense of the descendants of poor Irish or Romany immigrants?
          Why use University admissions at all if 5he goal is compensation? What about families with no kids going to university?

          • Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

            The goal is not compensation at all. At least not in my view. I thought that was what you were advocating. I must have misread your comment.

      • Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        I don’t see how it is a flaw in the argument. Students who come from a background of poverty have an enormous academic disadvantage. If you, for example, award a poor student a scholarship, you are doing it for that student not as reparations for that student’s ancestors.

    • Posted October 17, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      But the current potential student may still be wronged by a now obsolete policy.

      For example, in the debate over what to do about the legacy of residential schools for native americans here in Canada it is pointed out that the generation *produced* by the victims proper are also victims because their parents were screwed up so beat them, etc.

      • Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:37 am | Permalink

        but when you take affirmative action you are not making reparations for the wrongs done to a previous generation, you are trying to correct a bias that affects the student who is the target of the affirmative action not compensate their great grandfather who was robbed of his land.

        • Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          Right, and that current effect is *more* than “no redmen or niggers need apply”, it is the effect of having a mother who beat the candidate as a child because she was horribly treated by the aformentioned policy in the previous generation. (For example.)

  28. rickflick
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I would like to see a more honest approach to affirmative action. Rather than hide behind questionable, subjective criteria like “personality characteristics”, lay out a straightforward statistical system. Form a candidate list of all who pass a certain objective measure like grades and test scores. Accept 75% or so of the top qualifiers and then use a random method to make up the rest of the cohort. This should provide a pretty good distribution of applicants which include minorities. Perhaps this could be seen as a kind of quota system, which the Supremes frowned on, but it’s honest and satisfies the need for diversity.

    • Barbara Knox
      Posted October 16, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      objective measure[s] like grades and test scores

      Scientific objectivity in such matters is much harder to come by than is commonly believed. Yes, the final numbers are an objective result of a (hopefully unbiased) scoring procedure, but selecting the actual content of the tests is often far from objective and can easily be culturally biased.

      For an example, see re the B.I.T.C.H. test.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

        Of course there is the problem of testing bias. My suggestion was intended to at least lessen the harm by providing some flexibility. Fixing the testing procedures would, in fact, be another approach.

  29. Kiwi Dave
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Harvard’s two possible explanations for discrimination – deliberate enforcement of a quota or negative perception of Asian personalities – are not entirely mutually exclusive. Discrimination by the admissions office without interviews is quite compatible with either explanation.

  30. Chris Helland
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Affirmative Action when practiced at Admissions is ALWAYS a matter of holding certain groups to lower standards, and therefore other groups to higher standards. This is impossible to defend, because it imposes harm on INDIVIDUALS. The only morally defensible AA (considering the reparations motive) is one where the previously disadvantaged group receives extra preparation (Head Start, and others). But it should be limited in time. If a disadvantaged group cannot recover to par with other groups after several decades, it probably won’t get there. We want a truly color-blind society.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

      Does that mean forty three per cent Asians at Harvard selected by merit only?

  31. cmboyle99
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    If reparations is the goal of a public policy, it would seem preferable to aim programs/funding toward individuals of historically exploited groups that are economically or academically below the mean of the historically ruling group. Government contracting preferences to minority business owners seem like a program example that could be redirected to less fortunate persons of those minority groups. Maybe give the low achieving kid a voucher for community college or technical training instead. While it still discriminates against the equally low performing white kid, at least if directs the reverse discrimination toward individuals in need. Recognize Jerry’s point about ensuring diversity this does not address.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      Reparations are not the goal of public policy and should not be.

  32. Posted October 16, 2018 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    There is no answer that will satisfy everybody. I am generally in favor of letting the schools pick their student body the way they want to. I thought that would make me a conservative who would agree with Harvard. But Jerry said a liberal would agree with Harvard. Why would a liberal let Harvard discriminate on the basis of race. I thought conservatives did that. Does my favoring Harvard make me a liberal?

    Someone has to make s decision and set the policy. That is what the congress and the Supreme Court are for. Congress is directly elected by the people. The Supreme Court is indirectly selected by ghe people in a more indirect and more slowly evolving process. I am happy with the process that lets them decide. I do not always agree with their decisions.

    I agree with Harvard. Decisions about who is accepted is difficult and there are too many factors to only consider grades and test scores.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      Are difficult

  33. Wetbook
    Posted October 16, 2018 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    First: How does this population of Asian American students at Harvard map onto the university’s majors? I assume Harvard doesn’t want to become the next Embry Riddle and graduate a load of engineers. Part (maybe the most important part) of the value of “diversity” on campus is diversity of domains of scholarly inquiry. A place like Harvard that is steeped in classics, humanities, world civilization studies, etc. has a vested interest in maintaining that portfolio. If this means setting caps on majors in business, engineering, and pre-med fields, so be it. I suspect the follow-on effect of establishing such a disciplinary balance would alter the ethnic profile of who applies.

    Second: “Asian American” covers a wide swath of human diversity. My understanding is most of this pushback against Harvard is coming from Han Chinese, not “Asian Americans” as a monolithic group. Are Rohingya being discriminated against in Harvard’s admissions?

    Third: I have a hard time buying that Harvard’s current practices (that apparently disfavor Asian American applicants) constitute any sort of discrimination of oppression of people of color, as we conventionally understand that to mean groups disadvantaged throughout US history. A huge chunk of the money for this SFFA effort is not coming from Nth-generation descendants of 19th-Cen Chinese immigration, but rather from foreign nationals, i.e., non-citizen visa holders working in Silicon Valley and other high-end settings. These people are of course welcome to legally influence policy however they wish. But, they are a bunch of rich people who are not “oppressed POC” (as they are the dominant groups in their home countries), and are just pissed off that their economically very privileged kids have to go to mere awesome colleges instead of Harvard and Yale.

    • Posted October 16, 2018 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      Crazy Rich Asians?

    • Posted October 17, 2018 at 3:45 am | Permalink

      Majors is a good point. How does this work, in fact? If students do not have to declare a major when they apply, then do the admissions people just guess? (I believe that in similar discussions re Oxford, where you certainly apply to do a certain course, this was a large factor.)

      Re admitting “oppressed POC”, I’ve forgot where I saw numbers, but I believe that a large slice of the black students are black like Obama not Michelle — children of immigrants.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      You seem to want achievement of social justice by closing doors to youths coming from “bourgeois” families. Why do you think that the discriminated groups should consider second-rate colleges good enough for their children? You do not think that these colleges are good enough for the children of the “disadvantaged throughout US history”.
      In Eastern Europe, such reversal of privileges was performed by force on a large scale and was a lasting disaster.

  34. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted October 17, 2018 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    One possibly unintended consequence of this policy will be that Asians with degrees from Harvard will be ranked higher by employers seeking the best and brightest because it is now evident that to get into Harvard at all as an Asian requires higher scores in the parameters of most interest to employers than are required of other races.

  35. Posted October 17, 2018 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    I don’t think statistics are ever a morally permissible way of predicting what someone will do or what their personality will be. Even if 99.9% of the people you’ve studied so far have made exactly the same choice, that’s not really worth anything as far as predicting what the next person you study will do.

    • Posted October 17, 2018 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      What else do we have to go on?

  36. Posted October 17, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    What about a function of society and civil discourse of lifting the ‘bottom’ up as affirmative action.
    Non biased selection based on merit, not a hand over as such, to lead and aspire others in the same group of so called disadvantaged students.
    Talent lies everywhere.

    • Posted October 17, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      If the process works to the advantage of students on the bottom it is not non-biased and is not based on merit

  37. Posted October 31, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Where I live, the standard admission procedure is an anonymous written exam. Orphans, disabled and poor applicants are helped by waiving the fee. The students selected this way are normal vibrant young people with diverse interests, not the robot-like nerds some would expect. Some minorities are underrepresented, one (the Roma aka Gypsies) are not presented at all in the most wanted fields such as medicine. There was an attempt to help some Roma to study medicine, much efforts were invested, but nothing came out of it.
    I am strongly against affirmative action and other forms of race discrimination. I am for selection based on merit; I do not see inherent advantages in diversity. If a qualified applicant is turned away to make space for a less qualified one because the latter comes from a chronically underachieving group, this is perceived by the failed applicant as the profound injustice it is. I also think that promoting underachievers is a violation of consumers’ rights. I wouldn’t want to get poor quality medical care from an affirmative action doctor.

  38. Merilee
    Posted October 31, 2018 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Asked a Chinese-American classmate from Stockton at my Stanford reunion what his take was on this Harvard thing. He said that he felt Harvard should be able to fill their classes however they pleased and that Chinese parents are way too competitive on behalf of their kids ( tiger moms, etc.). Henry’s very involved in the San Francisco Chinese community and in helping refugees of all stripes (i.e. very liberal and “woke” in a reasonable sense).

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