For almost 35 years, college-admissions decisions in America have been governed by the continuing legacy of University of California v. Bakke, in which a fragmented U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of racial quotas but affirmed the legitimacy of considering race as one factor among several. The justices are now revisiting these crucial national issues in the pending Fisher v. University of Texas decision.
According to many observers, a crucial factor in the original 1978 ruling may have been the amicus brief filed by Harvard University. America’s oldest and most prestigious academic institution emphasized that its “holistic” admissions process allowed for the creation of a racially diversified student body while avoiding any “quota system.” In fact, Justice Lewis Powell’s majority opinion cited Harvard’s approach as exemplary, suggesting it demonstrated that well-intentioned and determined university administrators could achieve ethnic diversity without using quotas.
In the decades that followed, Harvard and its Ivy League allies redoubled their public advocacy of racial diversity via holistic admissions. When California’s Proposition 209 propelled the affirmative-action debate back onto the national stage during the 1990s, Derek Bok and William Bowen, former presidents of Harvard and Princeton respectively, published The Shape of the River, a weighty and influential volume that made the case for achieving academic racial diversity using the non-quota Ivy League methods already endorsed by the high court. Over the years, advocacy of “a holistic admissions system” as practiced by Harvard has become a favored mantra among diversity advocates in higher education.
But what if all these claims were simply fraudulent?
I recently published a lengthy article analyzing the admissions policies of America’s Ivy League universities; one of my main points was that these policies coincide with a very suspicious pattern of Asian-American enrollments.
Over the last 20 years, America’s population of college-age Asian Americans has roughly doubled; but during this same period, the number admitted to Harvard and most other Ivy League schools has held steady or even declined, despite significant improvement in Asian academic performance. Furthermore, the Asian percentages at all Ivy League schools have recently converged to a very narrow range and remained static over time, which seems quite suspicious.
Meanwhile, the Californian Institute of Technology (Caltech) follows a highly selective but strictly race-neutral admissions policy, and its enrollment of Asian Americans has grown almost exactly in line with the growth of the Asian-American population.
The stark difference between these two admissions policies is evident in this graph of comparative enrollment:
Top officials at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton today strenuously deny the existence of Asian-American quotas, but their predecessors had similarly denied the existence of Jewish quotas in the 1920s, now universally acknowledged to have existed. In fact, the large growth in the Asian-American population means that the fraction attending Harvard has fallen by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s, a decline considerably greater than the decline Jews experienced after the implementation of secret quotas in 1925.
Based on these officially reported enrollment statistics, the evidence of Ivy League racial quotas seems overwhelming to many outside observers. The liberal New York Times recently ran a forum on the topic, and a large majority of its commenters were scathing in their criticism of the Harvard public-relations officer who defended his university’s position.
S. B. Woo, founding president of 80-20, a national Asian-American advocacy organization that strongly supported President Obama’s reelection, participated in the New York Times forum, entitling his contribution “Discrimination Is Obvious.” He argued that “the credibility of elite colleges suffers” when they deny the clear evidence that they “set a quota for Asian students,” and he claimed that “America’s core value of equal opportunity is being trampled.” Liberal and left-wing pundits from publications such as The Atlantic and The Washington Monthly have similarly ridiculed Harvard’s blatant dishonesty in the matter.
Suppose we accept the overwhelming statistical evidence that the admissions offices of Harvard and other Ivy League schools have been quietly following an illegal Asian-American quota system for at least the last couple of decades. During this same period, presidents of these institutions have publicly touted their “non-quota” approach to racial admissions problems, while their top lawyers have filed important amicus briefs making similar legal claims, most recently in the 2012 Fisher case. But if none of these individuals ever noticed that illegal quota activity was occurring under their very noses, how can their opinions carry much weight before either the public or the high court?
If the “Harvard Holistic Model” has actually amounted to racial quotas in disguise, then a central pillar of the modern legal foundation of affirmative action in college admissions going back to Bakke may have been based on fraud. Perhaps the justices of the Supreme Court should take these facts into consideration as they formulate their current ruling in the Fisher case.
— Ron Unz, a theoretical physicist by training, serves as publisher of The American Conservative.