Fairness a casualty in Ivy League admissions

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/25 20:23:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



The Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard trial, which began last Monday, has attracted a lot of attention in the US. The suit, brought by an organization called Students for Fair Admissions on behalf of a group of Asian Americans who had been declined by the jewel in the crown of the Ivy League, accuses the university of downgrading Asian applicants in the admission process because of their race.

The current racially conscious admissions policy of Harvard is rooted in affirmative action, a major civil rights movement that became embodied in various federal directives in the mid-1960s. The aim was to reduce discrimination and provide more opportunities to minorities.

Some white applicants have long complained that such policies reduce their chances of getting into the best universities and instead provide places to less-qualified minority students. Now, Asians who have been excelling at standard tests and extracurricular activities have joined the battle by showing that even the interests of top performing minority students can be ignored in an attempt to create a more racially diverse campus.

Studies and statistics are a major part of the case. Students' application portfolios were dug up and analyzed in court. Debates on whether Asian Americans derive more benefits than penalties from affirmative action form the core of the hearing. The outcome of the case may affect the future course of affirmative action.    

But the most intriguing part of the trial is that it provides a rare opportunity to the public to peek into the opaque windows of college admission offices. It may be hard to fathom for people elsewhere in the world, but in a country where the torch of transparency has been held high to reduce corruption, the college admissions process more or less remains a black box. And yes, when a spotlight is trained on the grubby corners of the colleges' decision-making, it doesn't look pretty.

For example, there is a "Dean's interest list" - places that are occupied by children of major donors or potential donors to a university. And there is a criteria category called "personality traits" that includes things from "likability" to "attractive to be with," encouraging purely subjective judgments by the admission officers.   

It's the court's job to interpret all this and its impact on applicants. But the very existence of such selection criteria is an eye-opener for many new Chinese immigrant parents as well as for those who are in China but planning to send their children to receive US education.

The American education system, which focuses on helping students improve their overall quality, has long been perceived as more effective and fairer to children than the gaokao-oriented Chinese system. But before they moved to this country, few Chinese parents had expected a system where fairness is a much more complicated concept than simply a question of who has the best qualifications.

This, of course, also relates to the life experience of the parents themselves. Growing up in a largely homogeneous country where the college entrance exams have been basically the only criterion for admissions, Chinese parents know just one way to get ahead - through their kids' hard work. They may admire the holistic considerations in the American system, but at the bottom of their hearts, the fairness they are looking for in the education system should mean that those who work hard get what they deserve.

The disappointment and anger Chinese parents vent at Harvard and other top universities does not spring from a cultural shock, but rather the defeat of a long-held belief. For immigrants in an American society that has been known for equal opportunities without much nepotism, the discovery of backdoors to admissions and subjective judgments are an unpleasant surprise. 

Long-time members of the society can more easily tell the difference between idealistic concepts and reality. But new immigrants are not equipped with this wisdom. Many people outside of the US still mistake the heroic deeds and romance in Hollywood movies for the real lives and behavior of Americans. It just isn't so.

In his article about the Harvard case, "School Colors," in a recent issue of the New Yorker, Chinese American writer Hua Hsu said: "It's possible that immigrants are the only ones who speak about meritocracy and fairness without a trace of irony". He also said that one of the Chinese activists fighting against Harvard "kept mentioning the American Dream as though it were a contractual arrangement".

The American dream is not a contract. And nowhere in the world does fairness exist without glitches. But to many immigrants all the hardships they went through to get to the US will be wasted if they can't believe in the system.

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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