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The Trials of Harvard and Harvard’s Elizabeth Warren

Perhaps the richest irony of Harvard’s admissions policies disfavoring Asians is that they result in preferential admissions for white applicants.  This wasn’t the original intent of affirmative action partisans. Harvard admission rules are currently under dissection in a federal district court in Boston.

Of a strange piece, while it was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s expectation that she has Indian DNA running through her veins, I trust she wasn’t thrilled to learn it hasn’t been replenished for between a half-dozen generations and ten generations.  According to the Wall Street Journal, based on calculations of a distinguished Stanford scientist, this makes the former Harvard professor “between 1/64th and 1/1024th Native American.”

How bad are those ratios? They’re even worse than when courts allowed a two-year old girl in 2011, with a grand sum of “1.2 percent Cherokee blood” to be ripped away from a white married couple in South Caroline seeking to adopt her because of an absurd, although common, interpretation of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2013 returned “Baby Veronica” to the loving home where she had lived since birth, albeit by only a 5-4 ruling.

Hell, Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, when they were announced in 1935, had nothing whatsoever to say about with 1.2-percent Jews. They probably thought of themselves home free.

I am not an absolutist when it comes to taking race and ethnicity into account when, as the term goes, “allocating benefits and burdens.” In part this is because my dissertation nearly 40 years ago was on affirmative action in higher education admissions and I continue to appreciate the subject’s political and moral complexities.

I’m also not an absolutist because I recall, in 1967-68, no more than five or ten African American students, out of almost 3,000, at what is now Binghamton University, my undergraduate alma mater. Suffice it to say, maintaining ratios anywhere close to those any longer was politically and morally untenable, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. Something had to be done, fast.

Yet, among the 52 Jewish leaders I interviewed for the dissertation, I don’t remember anyone saying that race and ethnicity should remain a factor in college admissions forever, if at all. For those willing to accept the practice for a limited time, there was a sense it should come to an end no more than 35 years or so after the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision, which ruled that using race in admissions was legal if it were not the “determinative” factor. It is now 40 years since Bakke. And yes, race-based admissions policies do frequently leave the impression of being forever things at most of our most elite colleges and universities.

This is not good for a host of reasons, only one of which is that students with comparatively weaker academic skills often do poorly at highly competitive institutions, often dropping out, when in fact they could have succeeded at less-demanding schools. This is known as the mismatch theory. If it means anything, if I hadn’t started in an auxiliary program of a community college immediately out of high school, where I did terribly, I might have been piranha food by Christmas break.

I wrote two years ago about an excellent essay in the Winter 2016 City Journal by a lawyer named Dennis Saffran, “Fewer Asians Need Apply: How the Ivy League Discriminates Against Top-Achieving Students.” Citing a 2009 study, Saffran wrote how Asian students, who frequently do super on tests, face odds when applying to elite colleges “three times as high as whites, six times as high as Hispanics, an sixteen times as high as blacks.” Or in terms of test scores, “Asians need SAT scores [on average] 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and an incredible 450 points higher than blacks (out of 1,600 points) to get into these schools.”

If such differentials were not in effect, one could imagine Asian students comprising about 40 percent of students at top-tier colleges, as was already the case at Caltech, which doesn’t look at race in admissions. When Saffran wrote, Asian students made up 14 to 19 percent at schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

But what if using strictly colorblind admissions criteria – especially in terms of test scores – were to lead to a nonwhite group winding up with a plurality of seats? Say, 40 percent of them, at the nation’s most competitive institutions? How might that sit, particularly with various supporters of strictly colorblind policies, especially white ones? Might they think matters out of whack if a group comprising only about six percent of the population wound up filling two out of every five places in freshmen and subsequent classes at Ivy and similar colleges?

If you’re such a purist and against even the smallest acknowledgment of race in such situations even at private institutions, would you be OK, really OK with Asian-American and other Asian students more than doubling their seats at the nation’s best colleges and universities? With black and Hispanic as well as white students winning fewer seats thereby? Be honest now.

Frankly, for whatever honorable or less-than-honorable reasons, I was not comfortable with such a potential outcome when I first read Saffran’s essay. But I came to be, as how could I not and remain consistent in my opposition to the perpetuation of race-based considerations where they don’t belong?

An Elizabethan coda. I, too, had my ethnic heritage checked out, about a year ago, after spitting into a plebeian tube as directed. The findings didn’t say how many generations they went back, they just monochromatically reported I was “97 percent Eastern European Jewish.” While I was proud, I certainly wasn’t surprised. Yet, just as Senator Warren was determined to be part Indian, I’ve long aspired to be part Norwegian. But there wasn’t a solitary uffda in me.

Maybe I should have spitted into a more elite tube.

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