This month, millions of students will head to college. But some — including many Asian-Americans — won’t be going where they wanted to. A lawsuit against Harvard University has the potential to change that, and to expose one of the ways colleges discriminate against the best and brightest.
The plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, have produced evidence that, according to a study conducted by Harvard itself, Asian-Americans would make up 43 percent of the student body if admissions were based solely on academic merit. As it is, they are 19 percent.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that the “educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body” allow universities to use ethnicity as an admissions criterion. But the court has been clear that this is not a license to discriminate against groups.
For its part, Harvard denies it discriminates — it merely seeks diversity. But diversity means picking and choosing in part on the basis of race — and picking one person partly by race means not picking another person partly by his or hers. Most Americans would see that as discrimination.
And Harvard is accused of some ugly contortions to justify its admissions outcomes. Purportedly, it rated Asian-Americans lower on many virtues, including kindness and being “widely respected.”
Imagine the liberal outrage if Harvard systematically ranked African-Americans as unkind to hold down their numbers. If the plaintiffs are right, that is what Harvard has done to Asian-Americans. But this isn’t about blaming Harvard. If Harvard was doing this, it’s a sure thing that most other elite colleges in the United States were doing it too. Nor are Asian-Americans the only victims of social engineering in college admissions.
It is a fact that many, though not all, top colleges discriminate against women. This is a matter of math. Women constitute about 56 percent of all college applicants, yet many elite schools seek to maintain an even male-female ratio. Harvard, according to U.S. News & World Report, is 53 percent male.
The odds of this happening by chance are zero. And it isn’t chance. In 2006, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions at Kenyon College in Ohio, wrote in The New York Times that “because young men are rarer, they’re more valued applicants.” In other words, women are discriminated against.
Private institutions should be free to do what they want with their own affairs. But Harvard, Kenyon and almost all the rest get lots of money from the government. They are only partly private. If they want to discriminate by race (or gender), they should stop taking taxpayer money.
At the deepest level, I find this discrimination revolting. When I was an instructor at Yale, I came to believe the university should toss the name of every high school valedictorian in a pot, stir, and pick the entering class at random. It could hardly be any less gifted than the class that is actually admitted.
I know the arguments against this — athletes, legacies and the vitality of campus dating life. But I hate a system that incentivizes college-bound Americans to play the games of identity and gender politics. The idea that we can have an equal society by emphasizing race and gender is a lie.
Nor do I like the image of admissions officers carefully doling out their offers. So many to this ethnicity, so many to that, a few to this, now a few women, now a few men. Of course, it is not as gross as that. But that kind of discrimination is how diversity works in practice.
I propose we do something radical: Admit students based on their demonstrated ability to learn. If that means more Asian-Americans or women, excellent. For they are not Asian-Americans or women, they are individuals. And that this how they should be treated.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.