The Volokh Conspiracy

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Flashback 1987: "In a Pure Meritocracy … Stanford Could Become 40 Percent Jewish, 40 Percent Asian-American"


Concerns that elite universities have rigged their admissions policies to disfavor Asian Americans are nothing new. In 1987, Newsweek reported accusations along those lines. The article noted that the acceptance rate for Asian American applicants at elite colleges had dropped dramatically, that Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford had all studied why the Asian American acceptance rate was lower than for white students with similar academic credentials. (The answers ranged from potential unconscious biases to Asian Americans being less likely to benefit from legacy and athletic preferences.) UC Berkeley, already 22% Asian American in 1978, "revised its procedures in 1983 to give greater weight to essays and extracurricular activities, areas in which Asian-American students traditionally fare less well."

The article concludes with these thoughts:

Schools opened the way to previously excluded ethnic groups in the 1960s. Now Asian-Americans have turned affirmative action on its head by outperforming not only other minorities but the majority as well. As a result, educators are asking themselves whether it is legitimate to try to preserve the traditional, largely WASP culture of most prestigious schools. "Stanford could become 40 percent Jewish, 40 percent Asian-American and 10 percent requisite black," says emeritus Harvard sociologist David Riesman. "You'd have a pure meritocracy, and that would create problems for diversity and alumni."

I remember reading this at the time and being appalled that people would think there is something inherently wrong with a school being 40 percent Jewish and 40 percent Asian American. I was a bit surprised that I was actually able to find the article!

I recall reading another article around the same time, which I haven't been able to find, that helps explain why strong suspicions of discrimination against Asian Americans at Berkeley and UCLA didn't lead to lawsuits. The article explained that once in a while, a parent of an Asian American kid with a 1600, 4.0, and excellent extra-curriculars would threaten to sue. If the admissions office took the threat seriously, they would quietly admit the student.