Is Harvard Showing Bias Against Asian-Americans?

May 20, 2015
Originally published on May 21, 2015 3:42 pm

A group of more than 60 organizations has filed a complaint with the federal government claiming Harvard holds higher expectations for its Asian applicants than other minorities.

The coalition is made up of nonprofit organizations, including Chinese, Pakistani and Indian groups, and it claims Harvard uses racial quotas to control the number of Asian-Americans on campus.

"Asian-American applicants shouldn't be racially profiled in college admissions," says Swann Lee, a Chinese-American writer from Brookline, Mass. "Asian-Americans should have the playing field leveled."

Lee is the mother of twin 11-year-old boys. She helped organize the coalition because she worries her sons will be discriminated against. She wants Harvard, and other schools, to end race-based admissions.

"A lot of colleges really look up to Harvard and they will see what Harvard is doing and they will do something in the same vain," she says.

So the group filed a complaint with the federal government.

"We are asking the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to look into the black box that is the Harvard admissions process," Lee says, "so we can see what is really going on."

The complaint follows a lawsuit making similar claims that was filed in federal district court last year.

Lee and other members of the coalition cite research that shows to get into Harvard, Asian-Americans have to score much higher on the SAT than white, African-American and Hispanic students. And they say Harvard's admissions process lumps together different groups of Asian applicants into a single, high-performing stereotype.

"We are really diversified, with totally different cultural backgrounds and traditions and philosophies," Lee says.

Harvard officials wouldn't talk on tape, but in a statement, the university said its admissions philosophy complies with the law. The school points out that the percentage of admitted Asian-American students has spiked — from 17 percent a decade ago, to 21 percent. The population of Asian-Americans in the U.S.? Just 6 percent.

So what do students think? The coalition doesn't include groups on campus. Many Asian students I spoke with didn't want to talk about the issue. Some who did, said racism is still a problem here.

"I definitely see instances of it on campus," says Danielle Suh, a senior from Austin, Texas. The 22-year-old Korean-American says she feels discrimination through small, subtle ways. Still, Suh doesn't agree with the premise of the complaint.

"If there is a problem that we're lumping all of these groups that face different structural issues together," Suh says. "Then the response for that is even more nuanced affirmative action policies that give students who have faced different inequities growing up, the opportunity to account for those inequities."

Claims of discrimination against Asian students at elite colleges aren't new at Harvard and elsewhere. The University of North Carolina is battling a lawsuit claiming black and Hispanic students were given preference over Asian-Americans.

One response to the Harvard complaint has come from Asian-American members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who fear it could be a "back door attack on affirmative action."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Harvard is accused of showing bias against Asian-American applicants. A group of more than 60 organizations says the university holds higher expectations for its Asian applicants than for other minorities. They're asking the federal government to investigate, as Kirk Carapezza reports from member station WGBH.

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: The coalition is made up of nonprofit organizations, including Chinese, Pakistani and Indian groups, and it claims Harvard uses racial quotas to control the number of Asian -Americans on campus.

SWANN LEE: Asian-American applicants shouldn't be racially profiled in college admissions. Asian-Americans should have the playing field leveled.

CARAPEZZA: That's Swann Lee, a Chinese-American writer from Brookline, Mass. The mother of twin 11-year-old boys helped to organize the coalition because she worries her sons will be discriminated against, and she wants Harvard, and other schools, to end race-based admissions.

Harvard's so elite; why is this so important to you?

LEE: Because a lot of colleges, they really look up to Harvard. They will definitely, you know, see what Harvard is doing, and they will do something, like, in the same vain.

CARAPEZZA: So the group filed a complaint with the federal government.

LEE: We are requesting the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to look into the black box that is the Harvard admissions process so they can see what is really going on.

CARAPEZZA: This follows a similar lawsuit filed in federal district court last year. In making their case, Lee and other members of the coalition cite research that shows to get into Harvard, Asian-Americans have to score much higher on the SAT than white, African-American and Hispanic students. And they say Harvard's admissions process perpetuates stereotypes, lumping them all together - Indian, Pakistani and Chinese - into a single, high-performing group.

LEE: We are really very diversified with totally different cultural backgrounds and traditions and philosophies.

CARAPEZZA: Harvard wouldn't talk on tape, but in a statement, the university said its admissions philosophy complies with the law. And the university points out the percentage of admitted Asian-American students has spiked from 17 percent 10 years ago to 21 percent today. The population of Asian-Americans in the U.S. - just 6 percent. So what do students think? Well, the coalition doesn't include groups on campus and many didn't want to talk about the issue. Some who did said racism is still a problem here.

DANIELLE SUH: I definitely see instances of it on campus.

CARAPEZZA: Senior Danielle Suh is from Austin, Texas. The 22-year-old Korean-American says she feels discrimination through small, subtle ways. Still, Suh doesn't agree with the premise of the complaint against Harvard.

SUH: If there is a problem that we are lumping all these different groups that face different structural issues together then the response for that is even more nuanced affirmative action policies that give students who have faced different inequities growing up the opportunity to account for those inequities.

CARAPEZZA: Claims of discrimination against Asian students at elite schools aren't new at Harvard and elsewhere. The University of North Carolina is battling a lawsuit claiming black and Hispanic students were given preference over Asian-Americans. One response to the Harvard complaint has come from Asian-American members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who fear it could be a backdoor attack on affirmative action. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston.

SIEGEL: We're glad you're listening to your public radio station. Tomorrow, the U.S. and Cuba resume their talks. The thought was that embassies in Washington and Havana would be reopened by now. Why that hasn't happened tomorrow morning when you begin your day with Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.