If you’re at all interested in American higher education, you’ll no doubt have been paying some attention these last couple of weeks to the Harvard Admissions Trial. On the off chance you haven’t, here’s a quick re-cap:
The basics of the case were stated back here by Ron Unz about five years ago: Asian-Americans (meaning mainly Chinese and Korean) get much higher SAT scores (and academic results generally) than other ethnic groups in the United States, yet their share of enrolments at places like Harvard is nowhere near as high as the data suggest they have had. This, say some, is reminiscent of the treatment doled out to Jews in the 1920s, when unofficial quotas were introduced across the ivy League to restrict their number.
Some opponents blame affirmative action for this situation; others (with frankly a whole lot more justice) blame the whole phenomenon of legacy admissions (getting preferential treatment because a parent is an alumni, and if a major alumni donor so much the better). Harvard itself, backed by prominent economist David Card, says that in any event the case is based on a flawed reading of the data and that if read properly there is no discrimination against Asian-Americans.
What to make of all this?
Well, the easy retort here is that SATs and academic grades are a flawed definition of merit, especially since results on standardized tests are to a substantial degree a reflection of economic privilege. Thus, taking a wider, more holistic view of merit in admissions is a good thing. The problem here of course, is that this was indeed exactly how the Ivies got rid of Jews in the 1920s: they created new “holistic” definitions of merit “character”, “sporting ability” (at the time Jews were only considered to be good at basketball which did not become a big NCAA sport in the 1940s) and so forth. The question would then be “why does the holistic definition of merit seem to tilt so heavily against Asian-Americans?” (as indeed it does – check out this Bloomberg piece about how Asian-Americans fare on the “personal ratings” section of the Harvard application assessment).
I think the bigger analytical fallacy involved in all of these discussions is the assumption that institutions like Harvard have some kind of absolute and fair definition of merit – test-based, holistic, whatever – to which they hold everyone. But they don’t. Rather, they start from the perspective that their student body should “look” a particular way – that is, have a particular ethnic mix which is reasonably representative of the country as a whole, and then they tweak their merit measurements to achieve that goal. And, they would, argue, it’s because the Supreme Court told them to do so.
Here, we have to go back to the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision of 1978 which struck down a University of California affirmative action program which specifically reserved seats for Black students. The deciding justice’s opinion said that while race could not be used as a “deciding factor” because it contravened the Fourteenth (equal protection) Amendment. He did, however, say that institutions could use race as one of a number of factors only if the goal was one of “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body.” In other words, if you wanted to have a special program to increase racial equality, you had to phrase it in terms of “diversity”.
Now, this particular language of “educational benefits of diversity” leads you down some odd pathways. Most particularly, those benefits essentially accrue only to those students who attend that particular institution, who are told that this exposure is something that will “help them in their later careers” because they will have greater understanding of people different backgrounds, cultures, etc. And those people, for the most part, are white. Thus, racial preference ceases to be about righting historical wrongs, and morphs into providing white students with “exposure” to “diversity” (Natasha Kumar Warikoo’s book The Diversity Bargain is quite excellent on this, though if you want the short version there’s an Atlantic article on the subject here).
What adds some complexity to this problem is the unbelievably stratified nature of elite education in the United States. When Harvard admits someone, they are not just giving them entrance to four years of studies, they are admitting them to the American ruling class. This obviously raises the stakes somewhat: if Harvard were not at least somewhat race-conscious in its admissions, some groups might get shut out of pathways to future power, which would not be good for the country. The determination no group is left behind is of course admirable; but the price of this approach is effectively to freeze the current racial distribution of opportunities in amber. No one falls behind, but no one can get ahead, either. Which, when you’re running a massive affirmative action program for white people – which is what the Harvard Legacy system amounts to – is not a particularly good look.
To make a long story short: no test of merit is objective, standardized tests least of all, so “fairness” is in the eyes of the beholder. The issue is what kind of students one wishes to attract and what kind of student behaviour one wishes to reward. Harvard, through its actions, sends the world the bizarre message that what it values most of all is incestuous connections to the itself. It is incredibly sad that the Harvard Admissions controversy has centred on race when it quite clearly should be about inherited privilege