A reader pushes back a bit:
I feel like you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth here. On the one hand, you say that use oppose affirmative action in the way that it explicitly uses race as a factor in determining admissions as being unfairly discriminatory towards qualified students. Yet, at the same time, you favor California’s 10% policy as a substitute, even though the only reason this works is because it draws on our country’s structural and institutional racism. So you’re against affirmative action if it happens explicitly, but you’re all for it if it’s an implicit part of the system? How do you see those two things as being meaningfully different?
Because one is explicit, racially discriminatory and clearly undermines the principle of equality of opportunity; and the other, while not ignoring racism, is implicit, race-neutral, and geared toward advancing equality of opportunity. From an Asian-American reader and Harvard grad with a JD and MPH:
First, I can’t help but notice that many liberals like Freddie who are quick to say things like “there is no such thing as a meritocracy” are credentialed in squishy academic studies (see his Ph.D. in “Rhetoric and Composition.”) The sad fact is that much of Academia, especially the humanities, has abandoned traditional notions of intellectual rigor in favor of jargon and happy-talk in which nothing you say can ever be wrong so long as you come out on the right side (“microaggressions,” “structural racism,” “patriarchy,” and so on). If this is your academic background, then it really is true that there is no such thing as meritocracy. But anyone who has struggled through calculus-based physics or Bayesian Statistics knows the truth:
not everyone can handle truly trough academic material, and it’s not merely a matter of being privileged. You note that Cal Tech doesn’t use affirmative action and now has a class that is 40% Asian. But the interesting question is why doesn’t Cal Tech practice affirmative action? The answer: because they bloody well can’t. The required core curriculum in Cal Tech includes quantum mechanics for everyone! Cal Tech can’t admit unprepared kids and then shunt them off into African-American Studies or Sociology.
This is a big problem with the illiberal left that isn’t properly acknowledged: they are truly anti-intellectual. There is still a strain of Marxist thought in the liberal humanities that treats science itself as fundamentally Western, patriarchal, and racist. The crowning jewels of humanity (calculus, relativity, quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology) are treated as just another “way of knowing” the world. Although we aren’t there yet, this all reminds of me of the scene in Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou, where a woman bleeds to death during childbirth in China during Mao’s great leap forward, because the doctors in the hospital were all sent to be “re-educated” and have been replaced with seventeen-year-olds who can spout revolutionary dogma but are completely ignorant of medicine.
Liberals can talk a pretty game, but I wonder how many of them, if their child needed risky brain surgery, would hasten to a hospital whose motto is “We Put Diversity First,” or “We Don’t Believe in Merit?”
Another Harvard grad provides a solid assessment of the overall situation there:
I’ve been fascinated by your thread on the lawsuit alleging anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard. I believe the often-ignored but key issue in these kinds of discussions (flagged by Richard Posner, the eminent judge and author, here) is that Harvard, like all universities, runs itself as a business, and that business is based on maintaining and increasing the scale, power and influence of Harvard, as well as its brand as the gold standard of world universities. The admissions policies of Harvard College should be understood in that light.
To support its academic bona fides, Harvard lavishes unmatched riches on its graduate and professional schools with the aim of ensuring that they’re world-renowned centers of academic and research excellence educating students with the highest potential in their disciplines (I imagine you saw evidence of this when you were a graduate student there).
The role of Harvard College in Harvard’s business is somewhat different. In parceling out the 1,600 or so places for entering undergraduates each year, Harvard College has to assemble a mix of students who, collectively, do the most to satisfy the sometimes-competing business objectives of (i) maintaining Harvard’s academic bona fides; (ii) ensuring that future world leaders in a range of areas – not exclusively academic – choose to attend Harvard College; and (iii) satisfying other institutional priorities critical to the broader business of Harvard.
The first objective is met by admitting a certain number of truly academically superior candidates, as measured by standardized test scores, grades, class rank and other signifiers of academic achievement. Harvard needs to fill a large chunk of the class with candidates of this kind, not only to support Harvard’s academic brand but to avoid damaging it by lowering the range of standardized test scores of admitted students, which is published every year. Accordingly, Harvard makes as many places available for these kinds of candidates as it thinks it can, consistent with meeting objectives (ii) and (iii) above.
The second objective is met by trying to recruit candidates who may be exceptional in other than entirely academic areas (e.g., music, studio art, drama, creative writing, political activism, journalism and athletics) while being academically acceptable. Harvard College alumni who go on to positions of leadership in areas outside academia are powerful assets to Harvard’s brand, implicitly sending a message that attending Harvard College helped them achieve their success, and broadening Harvard’s reach in our society.
The third objective – satisfying other institutional priorities – leads to a variety of admissions behaviors. Historically underrepresented minorities are recruited and offered admission under affirmative action because this is seen to be the right thing to do and, perhaps as importantly, it would tarnish Harvard’s brand with important constituencies if Harvard were seen to be a laggard in this area. Harvard recruits athletes because, rightly or wrongly, sports are an important part of the American university experience (and Harvard’s history) and increase student and alumni loyalty to Harvard while enhancing Harvard’s brand and visibility (in my experience, incidentally, some of the most successful businesspeople are former Ivy League athletes, which suggests that some favoritism in admission to qualified athletes may have merit). Giving some advantage to legacy applicants increases alumni engagement and, implicitly, donations (by the way, legacy applicants tend to compare favorably on academic qualifications to the overall applicant pool – undoubtedly owing in part to the advantages they’ve enjoyed as children of Harvard graduates – but most are rejected anyway). Also, legacies are more likely to accept offers of admission, which also enhances Harvard’s brand (since yield is a well-publicized indicator of desirability, and Harvard’s yield is among the highest in the country).
So who loses in this system? Asians, who are applying in growing numbers but have only a relatively fixed number of slots available to them, because (i) not all are academically exceptional or leaders in other areas; (ii) they are not generally viewed as underrepresented minorities; and (iii) for a variety of reasons, relatively few of them are institutional priorities such as athletes and legacies. The disadvantaging of Asians is a logical (if unfortunate for the Asians) outcome of actions taken by Harvard in what it sees as its own interest. Harvard has never made academic superiority the dispositive criterion for admission to Harvard College, because that would be bad for business.