Questions Harvard Needs to Answer

Jun-Han Su and Hao Wu write that the university needs to assure Asian-American applicants that they aren't the subject of bias in the admissions process.

June 25, 2018

In a recent high-profile court case, Harvard University was found to have consistently marked Asian-Americans significantly lower on metrics of “positive personality” compared to other racial groups in its admissions process. As Asian-American students at Harvard, we find this revelation alarming and strongly believe a thorough investigation is warranted to see whether implicit bias and racial stereotyping may have played a role. We think this is essential to assuring the integrity of the admissions process, as well as creating a truly inclusive campus environment where the experiences of every member of Harvard’s diverse student body are acknowledged and respected.

A person’s character gets at the core of what it means to be human and has the unfortunate history of being abused to deprive marginalized groups of rights to participate in our society. By suggesting that an entire racial group is inferior in “positive personality” is hence not only hurtful, but insulting to Asian and Asian-American people. To be clear, we are open to potential differences between various applicant groups, but we firmly believe the university has a moral obligation to demonstrate in a rigorous and transparent manner that its marking process was free of racial bias due to the gravity of its implications and potential for misuse.

Last week, in advance of the release of relevant court documents, President Drew Faust sent an open letter stressing the university’s commitment to defending diversity and denying that Harvard admissions discriminates against Asian-American applicants. In addition, she warned that the plaintiffs in the forthcoming lawsuit will seek to misconstrue Harvard’s admissions process in order to advance a divisive agenda. However, the letter, which was light on details, failed to mention or provide a convincing explanation as to why Harvard admissions officers have been consistently rating Asian-Americans lower on metrics of "positive personality traits," such as likability, kindness and being widely respected.

While we appreciate the value of diversity and understand that the university has the right to defend its values, we find President Faust’s approach problematic and insensitive to the experiences of many Asians and Asian-Americans. Many of us and our forebears immigrated from countries where censorship is commonplace, and some were even politically persecuted for simply voicing their thoughts or fighting for their rights. The impassioned language used in President Faust’s letter may have been intended to rally support for the administration’s cause, but it is eerily reminiscent of the political propaganda used by authoritarian regimes to invoke fear in dissenters. In particular, suggesting that anyone who is worried about racial stereotyping playing a part in the admissions process, however legitimate their concerns may be, has to deal with the full force of the university and even veritas itself -- is chilling and antithetical to the values that form the cornerstones of our democracy.

We believe that true inclusion is only possible when the voices and experiences of all members of our community are heard and respected. Only in this way can we realize the dream pictured in President Faust’s letter, where we fulfill "the promise a world made better by an assumption revisited, an understanding expanded, or a truth questioned" -- again and again and again.


Jun-Han Su is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University in molecular and cellular biology. Hao Wu is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard in chemistry and chemical biology.


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