He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor,” read the reviewer’s note on one application. Another said that an applicant’s “scores and application seem so typical of other Asian applications I’ve read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English.” Admissions staff typically ranked Asian-Americans lower than whites in “personal qualities” and repeatedly described them as “being quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard workers.”

These comments appear in a federal civil rights complaint charging Harvard University with discrimination against Asian-American applicants. The complaint documents a pattern of bias, at Harvard and other Ivy League colleges, that, in its methods and its impact, closely parallels the imposition of de facto Jewish quotas at these schools in the 1920s. By spotlighting how racial preferences for other minorities have ironically contributed to this reprise of Harvard’s bigoted past, with Asians playing the role of modern-day Jews, the plaintiffs hope to prompt the Supreme Court to overturn Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, its 1978 decision allowing the use of such preferences in college admissions. For, as the complaint starkly illustrates, whatever merit affirmative action may once have had, it is a policy relic of an essentially biracial society of the 1970s that has become ludicrous in the multiracial America of 2016.

The Harvard case and a companion case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFA), an advocacy group representing Asian-American and other students rejected by top colleges that employ racial preferences. SFA is an offshoot of the Project on Fair Representation, which has brought high-profile challenges to race-conscious policies in education, voting, and other areas. Among its successes is the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which, while reaffirming the holdings in Bakke and in Grutter v. Bollinger that campus “diversity” is a “compelling interest” that can justify the use of racial preferences, significantly strengthened the “strict scrutiny” test to which such preferences are subject: not only must a college show that the consideration of race is “narrowly tailored” to achieve the diversity goal, the Court held, but this showing must now also include proof that “no workable race-neutral alternatives” exist for doing so.

The Harvard lawsuit, with an eye on eventual Supreme Court review, urges the justices to go a step further and overturn Bakke. Laying out a damning indictment that, in using race-based preferences rather than race-neutral alternatives to increase African-American and Latino enrollment, Harvard and the other Ivies have established quotas limiting Asian enrollment, the complaint asserts: “Given what is occurring at Harvard and at other schools, the proper response is the outright prohibition of racial preferences in university admissions—period.” The complaint stresses a particular irony in the use of racial preferences at Harvard. The Bakke decision had held up the Harvard admissions program, touted in Harvard’s amicus brief in the case, as a model of individualized assessment in which race was just one of many nonacademic and subjective “plus” factors, and no quotas were imposed. In fact, the SFA complaint documents, the “holistic” Harvard Plan was conceived in anti-Semitism—and now cloaks similar anti-Asian prejudice.

The anti-Semitic history is eye-popping. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz calls the Harvard Plan “one of the most shameful episodes in the history of American higher education in general, and of Harvard College in particular.” The SFA complaint draws on Dershowitz’s research and that of sociologist Jerome Karabel, whose 2005 book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton chronicles this story. Prior to the early 1920s, admission to Harvard and other Ivy League schools was based almost entirely on grades and an entrance examination. Essays and personal interviews were not required, and extracurricular interests and other subjective indicators of “character” or “leadership” received little consideration. The admissions criteria were objective; but until about the turn of the century, they were not particularly demanding, in keeping with the Ivy League reputation as a place for the social rather than the intellectual elite. Beginning in the 1890s, however, Harvard began making its requirements more academically rigorous, culminating in the adoption of a “New Plan” in 1911, designed to favor good students from public schools over poor students from prep schools.

This shift to a more academic emphasis coincided with the arrival in America of large numbers of Jewish immigrants whose culture shared this emphasis. Harvard was already 7 percent Jewish by 1900. The Jewish proportion of the student body increased to 10 percent in 1909 and then, after adoption of the New Plan in 1911, to 15 percent in 1914 and 20 percent in 1918. By 1922, Jews accounted for 21.5 percent of the Harvard student body.

This trend did not sit well with many Harvard alumni and staff. As early as 1907, the dean of financial aid expressed his preference for “sons of families that have been American for generations” rather than the “increasing class [of] foreigners, and especially the Russian Jews.” Some 20 years later, as Jewish enrollment reached its peak, a member of the class of 1901 sent a letter to President A. Lawrence Lowell after attending the Harvard-Yale game. “To find that one’s University had become so Hebrewized was a fearful shock,” he wrote. “There were Jews to the right of me, Jews to the left of me.” Bemoaning that Jews were “undoubtedly of high mental order” and that raising academic standards would only increase their number, the anguished alum beseeched President Lowell: “Are the Overseers so lacking in genius that they can’t devise a way to bring Harvard back to the position it always held as a ‘white man’s’ college?”

These concerns found a sympathetic ear in Lowell, who responded that he “had foreseen the peril of having too large of a number of an alien race and had tried to prevent it.” Indeed he had, and he ultimately succeeded. Lowell first warned of the “Jewish problem” in a 1920 letter expressing fear that the rising tide of Jews would “ruin the college” and suggesting a 15 percent cap on their enrollment. He formally proposed such a cap to the faculty in 1922, along with other policies to limit “Hebrew” admissions by placing greater emphasis on “character” rather than exam scores. A faculty-created special committee rejected an explicit Jewish quota in 1923, but as a compromise, it adopted a new geographic-diversity plan to admit applicants from the South and the West in the top seventh of their high school class—an obvious attempt to dilute the Jewish share of the campus population by increasing enrollment of students from areas with few Jews. The committee also endorsed Lowell’s proposal to emphasize subjective measures of “aptitude and character,” such as recommendation letters and interviews, rather than objective academic achievement, though the faculty didn’t implement this latter change.

The geographic-diversity compromise failed: the Jewish share of the student population continued to rise, to 25 percent in 1924 and 27.6 percent in 1925. At that point, Lowell, rather than renewing the battle for an express Jewish quota, again proposed the imposition of a de facto one by the institution of highly discretionary and subjective admissions criteria: “To prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews,” he wrote to the admissions committee, “I know at present only one way which is at the same time straightforward and effective, and that is a selection by a personal estimate of character on the part of the Admissions authorities.” Lowell was candid that “a very large proportion of the less desirable, upon this basis, are . . . the Jews.” A new special committee report endorsed the proposal in 1926 and rejected a counterproposal to base admission purely on objective academic standards, stating that “the standards ought never to be too high for serious and ambitious students of average intelligence.” This time, the faculty not only adopted the new holistic admissions plan but also made the process even more subjective, directing the admissions committee to interview personally as many applicants as possible to evaluate “character and fitness.”

The impact was dramatic. The percentage of Jews in Harvard’s freshman class plummeted from its 1925 high of over 27 percent to just 15 percent in 1926, and remained virtually unchanged at about that level until the 1940s. Harvard reinforced the de facto quota during this time by further strengthening the holistic emphasis on “leadership” and “character” in admissions, for the first time requiring candidates to submit personal essays and detailed descriptions of their extracurricular activities. Jewish numbers at Harvard did not begin to rebound until after World War II; but even as late as 1952, an admissions committee report expressed concern that the impression that Harvard was “dominated by Jews” might cause a loss of “students from upper-income, business backgrounds.” Other Ivy League schools imposed similar Jewish quotas via the use of subjective admissions criteria during the same period.

Admissions records at Harvard and other elite colleges over the past quarter-century reveal an uncannily similar treatment of Asian-Americans. Asians, of course, have often been termed the “New Jews” in reference to their focus on academic achievement. But as Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden observed in a chapter with that title in his 2006 book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, this status has also meant “inheriting the mantle of the most disenfranchised group in college admissions. The nonacademic admissions criteria established to exclude Jews, from alumni child status to leadership qualities, are now used to deny Asians.” Golden’s evidence is largely anecdotal, but two recent studies establish a devastating statistical case. In No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, published in 2009, Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and coauthor Alexandra Radford demonstrate that, controlling for other variables, Asian students applying to highly selective private colleges face odds against their admission three times as high as whites, six times as high as Hispanics, and sixteen times as high as blacks. To put it another way: Asians need SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and an incredible 450 points higher than blacks (out of 1,600 points) to get into these schools. An Asian applicant with an SAT score of 1,500, that is, has the same chance of being accepted as a white student with a 1,360, a Latino with a 1,230, or an African-American with a 1,050. Among candidates in the highest (1,400–1,600) SAT range, 77 percent of blacks, 48 percent of Hispanics, 40 percent of whites, and only 30 percent of Asians are admitted.

In an exhaustive 2012 article, “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” Ron Unz looked at ethnic acceptance rates at elite schools since 1980 and found “a highly intriguing pattern” at Harvard and at the other Ivies. Asian enrollment at Harvard increased from about 4 percent to 10 percent during the early and mid-1980s. Asian enrollment then spiked after the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) began an investigation in 1988 into an earlier complaint that Harvard was discriminating against Asians, peaking at 20.6 percent in 1993. The OCR closed the investigation in 1990. Beginning in 1994, the first year in which all students were admitted after the close of the investigation, “The Asian numbers went into reverse, generally stagnating or declining during the two decades which followed. . . . Even more surprising has been the sheer constancy of these percentages, with almost every year from 1995–2011 showing an Asian enrollment within a single point of the 16.5 percent average.”

Unz notes that “this exactly replicates the historical pattern . . . in which Jewish enrollment rose very rapidly, leading to imposition of an informal quota system, after which the number of Jews fell substantially, and thereafter remained roughly constant for decades.” (See chart, below, which compares Harvard’s Jewish enrollment for the period from 1908 to 1942 with its Asian enrollment for the corresponding period from 1976 to 2010.)


These figures actually understate the decline in Asian representation at Harvard, as they don’t take into account that it has occurred while Asians have been the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, with their numbers more than doubling over the last 20 years. The Asian share of the college-age (18–21) cohort quadrupled, from 1.3 percent to 5.1 percent between 1976 and 2011. Factoring this in, Unz calculates that “the percentage of college-age Asian-Americans attending Harvard . . . has . . . dropped by over 50 percent” since peaking in 1993, “a decline somewhat larger than the fall in Jewish enrollment which followed the imposition of secret quotas in 1925.”

Strikingly similar patterns can be seen at other Ivy League colleges. As at Harvard, Asian enrollment rates briefly shot up at Yale, Columbia, and Cornell during and just after the 1988–90 OCR Harvard investigation, peaked in the early to mid-1990s, and then declined significantly. As Unz documents, Asian enrollments at all Ivy League colleges during this period “rapidly converged to the same [Harvard] level of approximately 16 percent, and remained roughly static thereafter”—so static that “the yearly fluctuations in Asian enrollments are often smaller than were the changes in Jewish numbers during the ‘quota era.’ ” Indeed, as the SFA plaintiffs put it, Harvard and “all other Ivy League schools . . . inexplicably enroll Asian Americans in remarkably similar numbers year after year after year.” These figures have remained constant in the 14 percent to 19 percent range, even though, according to one study of “three of the most selective Ivy League colleges” cited in the lawsuit, Asian-Americans constitute 27 percent of the applicants to these schools—and 45 percent of the applicants with the top SAT scores.

On average, Asian students need SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than blacks to get into highly selective private colleges. (MICHAEL J. DOOLITTLE/THE IMAGE WORKS)
On average, Asian students need SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than blacks to get into highly selective private colleges. (MICHAEL J. DOOLITTLE/THE IMAGE WORKS)

Among elite colleges, one school stands out conspicuously in its Asian enrollment trends: the California Institute of Technology. Caltech is the only top school that rejects the use of racial preferences as well as “legacy” admissions for the children of alumni, instead selecting students based almost entirely on academic merit. Asian enrollment at Caltech has kept pace with the growth of the Asian college cohort and now stands at over 40 percent of the student body. Asians similarly account for about 40 percent of the population at the five most selective campuses in the University of California system—Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis, and Irvine—where the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996 barred racial preferences. These figures further support the inference of discrimination by Harvard and the other Ivies.

Anecdotal evidence also proves consistent with this conclusion, suggesting an anti-Asian bias that endures among otherwise devoutly antiracist university officials, for whom Asians embody “uncool,” déclassé traits that offend their liberal worldview. Stories like those of a rejected Harvard applicant profiled in the SFA lawsuit—a child of Chinese immigrants; high school valedictorian; perfect ACT score; captain of the varsity tennis team; even an NPR volunteer!—are legion. Golden chronicled many of these stories in The Price of Admission: Henry Park’s immigrant parents scrimped to send him to prep school at Groton, where he graduated 14th in his class, with a 1,560 SAT score, ran cross-country, and coauthored a published paper in an academic journal—but Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Stanford, and MIT rejected him. Jamie Lee had perfect SAT scores, a 162 IQ, and composed musical pieces, but he was turned down by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT, and wait-listed at Columbia and Dartmouth.

Even more telling are the attitudes of admissions officials who defend these decisions. When Golden confronted him about Henry Park’s rejection, MIT’s dean of admissions engaged in the kind of racial stereotyping that, as Golden notes, would be unimaginable in the case of a black applicant. “It’s possible that Henry Park looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same profile,” the dean said, “that he just wasn’t . . . interesting enough to surface to the top” but was “yet another textureless math grind.” A former Vanderbilt administrator told Golden that Asians are good students but don’t provide a stimulating intellectual environment. The notes from the Harvard admissions staff quoted at the beginning of this article, describing Asians as hardworking but lacking in “personal qualities,” which came to light in the 1988 OCR investigation, reflect the same underlying prejudice. In a recent investigation of a discrimination complaint against Princeton, OCR found such notations as “defies the stereotypes, thinks and feels deeply” in Asian application files. (OCR, whose determinations are not binding in court, nonetheless rejected the complaint, ignoring the statistical evidence and essentially determining that there was no discrimination because, as John Rosenberg put it for the Minding the Campus blog, “a few Asians were admitted with lower academic credentials than some rejected non-Asians.”)

“Asians are typecast in college admissions offices as quasi-robots programmed by their parents to ace math and science tests,” Golden observes. A Yale student commenting on the Princeton OCR complaint put it more bluntly: “[T]here can be good reasons for the disproportionately low acceptance rates for many Asians. . . . Top-tier schools . . . look not only for good grades but for an interesting student who will bring something of value to the community.” A Boston Globe columnist noted that the comment “sounds a lot like what admissions officers say, but there’s a whiff of something else, too.”

The something else smells a lot like the attitude toward Jews 90 years ago. Now, as then, an upstart, achievement-oriented minority group has proved too successful under objective academic standards. And so, as Jews were in the 1920s, Asians today are deemed deficient in the highly subjective and discretionary “personal estimate of character” favored long ago by Harvard president Lowell. But while anti-Semitic elites of the 1920s were forthrightly reactionary, their grandchildren’s anti-Asian bigotry is concealed under a veneer of modern progressivism. This is not merely because it rechristens Lowell’s arbitrary criteria with the New Agey term “holistic” but more fundamentally because it is based on a stereotypical view of Asians as out of sync with liberal culture. The image of Asian students as one-dimensional test-taking robots, short on creative thinking, all too often resonates with modern liberal educators, with their disdain for testing and “rote” learning, which they see as inimical to a “frolic in the fields” concept of creativity. As former neoconservative-turned-leftist culture warrior Diane Ravitch articulated this philosophy: “I don’t care if my two grandsons . . . have higher or lower scores than children their age in . . . Japan [or] Korea. . . . [I] care that [they] are . . . curious about the world; are loved; learn to love learning; [and] are kind to their friends and to animals; . . . Let’s all read Walden, read poetry, listen to good music, visit a museum, look at the stars.”

The bias against a group seen as having a learning approach that rebukes this romantic idyll is reflected in the concern of liberal college administrators that their institutions not become majority Asian. As Golden told the New York Times, “The schools semiconsciously say to themselves, ‘We can’t have all Asians.’ ” It may be more than semiconscious. A former admissions officer at Wesleyan, Brown, and Columbia warns ominously in the same Times article that “if affirmative action is overthrown . . . our elite campuses will look like U.C.L.A. and Berkeley.” Golden recounts the experience of Princeton professor Uwe Reinhardt in raising the discrimination issue with university officials: “They would say . . . ‘You wouldn’t want half the campus to be Chinese.’ ” Reinhardt had a good answer: “Well, why not?” As the director of Asian-American studies at Northwestern put it, “In the 1920s, people asked: will Harvard still be Harvard with so many Jews? Today we ask: will Harvard still be Harvard with so many Asians? Yale’s student population is 58 percent white and 18 percent Asian. Would it be such a calamity if those numbers were reversed?” It’s ironic that the same progressives who exult at the prospect of the United States becoming a majority-minority country fret at the far less disruptive prospect of Harvard or Yale becoming majority Asian.

Liberal discomfort with Asians can shade into outright hostility. Browbeating affirmative-action opponent Abigail Thernstrom in the wake of the passage of Prop. 209, Crossfire cohost Bob Beckel asked angrily, “Would you like to see . . . UCLA Law School 80 percent Asian? . . . . Will that make you happy?” The hostility is exacerbated by the unavoidable reality that affirmative action puts Asians in competition with African-Americans and Hispanics. Another study by Espenshade found that racial preferences for blacks and Latinos at elite colleges come almost entirely at the expense of Asian-Americans rather than whites. He and a colleague determined that if affirmative action were eliminated, “[n]early four out of every five places . . . not taken by African-American and Hispanic students would be filled by Asians.”

Racial-preference supporters argue that Asian students are harmed just as much by admissions preferences for legacies and athletes, which disproportionately benefit whites. Indeed, OCR dismissed the 1988 Harvard complaint based on a finding that any discrimination against Asians was explained by such preferences. The current Harvard lawsuit also attacks legacy preferences but for a different reason, arguing that their elimination would be a “race-neutral alternative” that would allow Harvard to admit more blacks and Latinos without resorting to race-based selection. I think that the plaintiffs are right, as a matter of fairness, to oppose legacy preferences (even though my daughter and I are both Harvard graduates, so our family may have benefited from them). However, Espenshade’s data show that their abolition would do little to benefit blacks, Latinos—or Asians.

Thus, this case necessarily brings into stark relief the ironic impact of race-based admissions preferences in today’s multiracial society. Whatever the justification for racial favoritism in the essentially biracial era of 1978, when Bakke was decided, the burden now falls largely on another historically marginalized racial minority—a group that is heavily foreign-born and that, while generally prosperous, still has large pockets of immigrant poverty. (See “The Plot Against Merit,” Summer 2014.) Affirmative action, the flagship policy of multiculturalists, has foundered on multiculturalism itself—and it’s time to pull the plug on it. The Harvard lawsuit provides the courts with a good opportunity to do so.

Top Photo: Students have filed a federal civil rights complaint against Harvard University for anti-Asian bias. (JOSEPH SOHM/CORBIS)


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next