After FOB, the other topic du jour around the pearl tea cooler has been the federal complaint that some Asian-Americans are bringing against Harvard for discrimination in its admissions. Except it’s not really discussed, so much as mentioned and then everyone looks away in embarrassment. Which is perhaps equally telling about the bamboo ceiling.
As someone who has never been involved in the Harvard admissions process, here are my two cents with the eminent qualifications of a) (mumble mumble) I went to Harvard b) I did med school admissions for several years.
Does Harvard discriminate against Asians in its admissions? Probably. Whether or not the discrimination is systematic is another story. My guess would be that admissions officers at Harvard are too smart to document it. A cumulative series of small actions can also explain a large part of it that is not easy to prove. Claiming that Asians have higher average scores and therefore there is evidence of discrimination is not sufficient because the numbers just set the floor- after that, the judgment is about everything else BUT scores and grades.
In my own experiences of screening applications of exceptionally successful young people, one of the biggest challenges is boredom. All these people are so bright, so amazing and so…similar. When you have read 25 applications in a row, I assume there is implicit bias that leads reviewers to feel that all Asians Look the Same. East and South Asian applicants to elite institutions are disproportionately from middle/upper class backgrounds, and their life experiences end up with a high degree of similarity to each other (and whites). When you are looking for student diversity, it can be overly easy to feel that Asians are not fitting that bill. To this day, I can remember the essays of applicants who were homeless, or who grew up in war zones- not that these applicants were “better”—all I am saying is that these applicants were highly memorable. Highly memorable takes you a long way, particularly when you understand that 95% of the decisions are made in minutes or seconds.
Do you kind of look like a bitter douche bag for filing a case against Harvard? Yes. This is the hard part. Even if it’s likely that Harvard is discriminating against Asians, the optics are bad. In a period when black people are being shot by the police, black churches are burned down, Latinos are being rounded up and jailed on trumped up immigration charges, you’re complaining about not getting in to Harvard. Asians are experiencing discrimination and racism all the time- but I’m not sure this is the most effective way to counter back.
But I suppose this is easy to say- I got in. Since both DP and I went to Harvard, our kids will be awarded “double-legacy” points. And this is what bugs me the most. People pick hammer race in admissions because it’s easy to identify. There’s no outcry over legacy admissions, athlete admissions, or personal connections admissions. More than anything, rather than eliminate considerations of race, we should be asking for greater transparency.