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Higher Education Needs More Affirmative Action, Not Less

The lesson of the recent case at Harvard University is that colleges and universities must do more to fully recognize their students as whole people, writes Margaret M. Chin.

November 12, 2019
 
 
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When someone asks me to introduce myself, I don’t tell them my SAT scores.

Instead, I say that I was born in New York City, the daughter of working-class Chinese immigrants, who grew up in public housing and attended public schools.

I didn’t have my heart set on going to college anywhere in particular. During my junior year of high school, in 1979, I was recruited through Harvard University’s undergraduate minority recruitment program when I met Asian American student recruiters at a college fair in New York City’s Chinatown. Mind you, this was three years after Harvard began recognizing Asian Americans as a racial minority in admissions. I embraced opportunities to connect my identity with my education. My extracurriculars were excellent, but my SAT scores were not particularly outstanding. I was both excited and nervous about applying to such a prestigious school.

Well, I got in. At that time, Asian Americans made up barely 3 percent of the Class of 1980. My Class of 1984 had about 6 percent Asian Americans according to data compiled by the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, of which I am a board member. Today, Asian Americans make up just over 25 percent of the Class of 2023 at Harvard. The importance of affirmative action clearly continues to this day, despite the ongoing concerted and disingenuous efforts to destroy it with Students for Fair Admissions’ pending cases at the University of North Carolina and the University of Texas and its appeal of a recent, highly publicized case at Harvard.

In that case, the Massachusetts federal court affirmed the legal use of race as a factor in college admissions and ruled against SFFA and its president, Edward Blum, by siding with Harvard. The ruling supports the holistic admissions process, which considers applicants as whole human beings, rather than merely an accumulation of data points. This suit was the Asian American sequel to Blum’s past unsuccessful challenge to race-conscious college admissions with white clients, specifically Abigail Fisher at the University of Texas. However, this case proved that Asian Americans can’t be used by Ed Blum.

In October 2018, I testified as one of eight representatives of student and alumni pro-diversity organizations that filed briefs in support of Harvard's admissions process and affirmative action policies nationwide.

The lawsuit has made me reflect on my time at college and my identity as an Asian American and a first-generation college student. As a student, I helped Harvard recruit more students of color and worked to educate admissions officers about cultural issues, language barriers and immigration experiences that would affect the education and evaluation of minority applicants. I learned about the value of solidarity and affirmed my belief that we are all much more than the sum of our parts -- and certainly more than the total of our standardized tests.

Advocating against discrimination toward Asian Americans and for increased representation must be done with and within communities of color that have suffered and still struggle with oppression, state violence and bias, both explicit and implicit. Asian Americans still confront systemic biases, from guidance counselors in school to managers at work.

In 1983, I co-wrote an article in Bridge magazine that examined the challenges Asian Americans were facing in college admissions. Our survey of 25 universities indicated that the admission rate for Asian Americans lagged behind the rate for all other ethnic groups, including white applicants. But rather than demanding the elimination of race as a consideration in admissions, we urged colleges, including Harvard (which already had an affirmative action program) and many others, to more actively advance their own affirmative action policies: to set up minority recruitment programs, to hire Asian American admissions officers, to increase training on cultural bias and to become educated about stereotypes that worked against Asian American applicants. We concluded that it is better for Asian Americans to be recognized as distinct individuals than to be unintentionally excluded, and we decried insufficient financial aid and other barriers that kept out applicants who were poor or from inner cities.

The report found that, because “education is one of the prime movers in our struggle for minority rights,” it is essential that marginalized communities demand access to opportunities often deliberately and systemically denied to them. But we were clear that this access is not zero sum. Better access to education overall, along with affirmative action programs available to more students is not zero sum. In fact, our society will be better off with more college graduates.

The lessons that I learned at Harvard about embracing difference, identifying shared values and considering other perspectives during discussions in the classroom, dining hall and late nights in the dorm transformed me and still shape my work today. It was important that I met black, Asian, Latino and white students from all political and economic backgrounds, and especially from wealthier ones. As an associate professor of sociology, I continue to study and teach about issues of equity and equality that stem from my experiences as a Harvard undergraduate.

As I wrote in my second book, Stuck, about second-generation Asian Americans in the corporate world and the diversity programs that help them achieve success, I am reminded of the words of legal scholar Mari Matsuda nearly three decades ago. “When Asian-Americans manage to do well, their success is used against others,” she observed. “The success that is our pride is not to be given over as a weapon to use against other struggling communities.”

“I hope,” she added, “we will not be used to deny educational opportunities to the disadvantaged and to preserve success only for the privileged.”

Again, success is not a zero-sum game. If I succeed, it doesn’t mean that you fail. Neither is identity. My identity is unique, and so is yours.

This case has taught institutions of higher learning to do more to fully respect and represent their students and recognize them as whole people, not just test scores on a screen or even their personal ratings. Colleges and universities can ensure that affirmative action and diversity programs are working by implementing implicit bias training at all levels of the institution. Getting rid of bias allows diverse groups to be welcome at all levels.

In addition, universities should reflect on how much of a role legacy and athletics have on offering higher educational opportunity and how they affect racial diversity on their campuses. The Massachusetts court decision found in the Harvard case that race-conscious admissions should remain and be strengthened because, among other reasons, getting rid of legacy and athletic admissions is not a race-neutral alternative means to achieve diversity. Other institutions’ legacy and athletic admits may have a very different racial makeup, so a straight-out elimination may have unexpected consequences on racial diversity. Finally, legislatures should also be flexible and recognize that affirmative action may need to be put back in place or strengthened to sustain diversity in universities. A whole-person admissions process that takes into account many factors, including race, should always be considered.

I can tell you what I got on the SATs, but it won’t tell you who I am or what I am capable of.

Bio

Margaret M. Chin is associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center in New York City. She is the author of Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder (NYU Press, forthcoming 2020) and Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry (Columbia University Press, 2005).

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