The Ferocious Fight Over Harvard Admissions

Asian advocacy groups are criticizing a coalition of Asian advocacy groups for their discrimination complaint against Harvard University, which advocates eliminating race as a factor in college admissions. CREDIT: AP/STEVEN SENNE
Asian advocacy groups are criticizing a coalition of Asian advocacy groups for their discrimination complaint against Harvard University, which advocates eliminating race as a factor in college admissions. CREDIT: AP/STEVEN SENNE

A coalition of over 60 Asian American groups alleged that Harvard University committed civil rights violations against Asian students in its admissions process on Friday. The coalition includes the National Federation of Indian Americans, Asian Americans for Political Advancement, a political action committee created in 2011 with intention of giving Asian Americans a voice in politics, and the Long Island Chinese American Association. They filed a complaint with the civil rights division of the Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education, citing that the percentage of Asians at Harvard has declined by 3 to 5 percentage points since its peak attendance of 20 percent of the student population in 1993.

The coalition is arguing that Harvard used racial stereotypes and applied different standards to Asian students during admissions, as well as a racial quota, among others. They said the acts they describe would violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution.

“I was a qualified student,” said Michael Wang, who said he is a victim of discrimination by Ivy League universities. Wang cited high test scores, advanced placement classes, and many extracurricular activities, such as debate and choir. He was wait-listed by Harvard and then eventually received a rejection. He was also rejected from all of the Ivy League universities he applied for, according to the coalition. “When these institutions and admissions offices place quotas, when they say just because you’re Asian American, we’ll set higher standards for you, I felt that, well, I can’t change who I am, being Asian is a part of my identity and something I should be proud of.”

The coalition bringing the complaint advocate for doing away with including race in affirmative action policies and said universities should only use economic condition-based affirmative action in college admissions. The coalition said it would better target disadvantaged people. The organizing committee for the complaint includes Yukong Zhao, an author and columnist, Chunyan Li, professor and civil rights activist and Swann Lee, a civil rights activist and author, to name a few.


However, many other Asian American organizations, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Organization of Chinese Americans, Asian Pacific American Network, South Asian Network and Japanese American Citizens League, disagree with this approach. More than 130 of these groups signed a letter supporting affirmative action policies and opposing the complaint.

“We also recognize that despite the great success of some Asian American groups, a large number of APAs still experience admission rates and academic performance on par with or below African American and Latino Americans,” said Michael W. Kwan, National President of Organization of Chinese Americans, in a statement. “When the data is disaggregated, it will clearly demonstrate the important need to continue affirmative action. Southeast Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders still have some of the highest rates of poverty and lowest academic success among all racial groups.”

Carl Hum, vice president of policy and programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, spoke up at the press conference to ask the coalition to expand on whether they support affirmative action policies.

“Affirmative action policies have been upheld by the court repeatedly in admissions process for Ivy League schools across the country,” Hum said.

AAAJ and other organizations opposing the coalition’s efforts say that the complaint splits communities of color.

“Instead of asking Americans to come together to help address serious problems in our education system, these folks are trying to divide communities. We are in this boat together and Asians won’t save our children’s future by pushing other communities overboard,” said Christopher Punongbayan, executive director at AAAJ’s Asian Law Caucus in a statement on the issue.


“You shouldn’t be able to use race as a factor,” Karl Kuan Zhang, a member of the coalition and associate professor at George Mason University responded, saying that affirmative action has been in place for decades. He also used Malia and Sasha Obama as an example of why race should not be included in affirmative action, saying their privilege of wealth and influence should disqualify them from receiving the benefits of affirmative action.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) attended the press conference and announced that he would introduce legislation that would “require the department of education to document these crimes against Asian Americans.”

“…any admissions system to a university that is designed to limit Asian American applicants is not acceptable and infringes on the constitutional rights of Americans. This is not just an issue for Asian Americans. Those who do the best job will get the best positions and what we have now is an insidious form of discrimination that has caused harm to individuals simply because of their race,” Rohrabacher said.

In 1989, Rohrabacher introduced HR 147, which was designed to investigate undergraduate admissions processes that discriminated against Asian applicants. It initially had more bipartisan support, including The Heritage Foundation, Organization of Chinese Americans, B’nai Birth and Congressman Robert Matsui (D-CA). The bill lost bipartisan support out of concern that it was an attack on giving preferences to minority groups through affirmative action. The Japanese American Citizens League and Organization of Chinese Americans did not support the bill, and don’t support the current complaint.

However, the bill helped to bring attention to the issue in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which resulted in various investigations of universities for bias against Asian students.

In the 1980s, Harvard was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for discrimination against Asian applicants. The department found that its preferences for legacy students and athletic ability were responsible for the lack of Asian students, not discrimination. UC Berkeley and UCLA were also accused of discrimination against Asian students after a decline in its admission rates of Asian students in the late ’80s. UC Berkeley admitted that its admissions policies limited the number of Asian students, such as not including proficiency in Asian languages in the foreign language requirement and not raising the test score component of the admissions requirement. Its faculty committee found no evidence of intentional bias toward Asian students. There is very little transparency for students and parents, however, as to how much admissions offices weigh different factors, such as the essay versus test scores and an excellent non-legacy student versus a decent legacy applicant.


For example, the admissions process for legacy students versus non-legacy students differs widely from college to college, and depends in part on the applicant pool and the college’s priorities at that particular time, said Deena Maerowitz, an educational consultant who helps guide students though admissions applications and former associate director of admissions at Columbia University Business School.

“Some colleges are very open and say they will look extra closely at legacy students and some colleges say it doesn’t matter and some colleges have programs where you say ‘My daughter or son is applying,’ they have a special program where they will set things up for you,” Maerowitz said. “There could be more perks in terms of more private interviews and more outreach to alumni. You’re trying to create this diverse class and it’s okay to have legacy students in it, but you need other kinds of students to round it out and sometimes you might need more of those students and sometimes you might not, so it really depends on who else is in the applicant pool at the time.” Last year, The Project on Fair Representation filed a lawsuit against Harvard and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, advocating that affirmative action policies should be banned completely. It alleged that the university limits how many Asian students it admits each year. This case included both white and Asian students, however.

Two commissioners on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Michael Yaki and Karen Narasaki, both Asian American, issued a statement saying the commission will review the complaint and monitor any new developments. The commissioners expressed skepticism, however.

“We hope that this is a sincerely raised issue and not a back door attack on affirmative action … Neither of us believes that any racial or ethnic group should be subjected to quotas. Nor do we believe that test scores alone entitle anyone to admission at Harvard … While we understand that some programs may be imperfect or even need substantial reform, we do not support any attempt to eliminate affirmative action programs at Harvard or any other institution of higher learning.”

Harvard released a statement emphasizing that its previous investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had been found compliant with the law.

“The investigation was ’88 right? So over the last 20 years, applicants have almost doubled but the ratio is lower. That proves a new investigation is necessary. If they say they have no discrimination, then let us look into their books,” Yukong Zhao said.

Update: OCA released a statement on its opposition of the complaint against Harvard University.