Home > College Admissions, Undergraduate education > College admissions I. Discrimination and lies, Jews and Harvard

College admissions I. Discrimination and lies, Jews and Harvard

Recent reports on alleged discrimination of Asian Americans at Ivy League schools (read a discussion here and view this graph), brought a lot of disgust in me, as well as some ambivalence. Here and in the next post I will try to deconstruct these feelings.

In this post I mention my family and my own history of dealing with discrimination.  I then briefly review and make parallels with the current discussion of the issues, and make some recommendations.  In the next post, I will explain why the whole issue is overhyped and what does that say about american culture.

Russian Jews go to school

Well, this is a really long story, but when it comes to educational opportunities, things were always pretty bad.  By 1880’s most universities and gymnasiums in Imperial Russia instituted a 5 to 10% Jewish quota, which remained in effect until the Russian revolution in 1917.  Read more on the history in this book (part III), and in amazing personal memoir (in Russian).

Communists abolished Jewish discrimination replacing it with anti-religious discrimination, often having similar effect.  In the 1930s, my grandmother was expelled from college after communist officials discovered that her father (my great-grandfather) was a rabbi.  A local newspaper went all schadenfreude about her, and published an anti-clerical article “The wolf in sheep’s clothing”, apparently missing the irony of the origin of the title.

By the early 1960s, Israel became a super-enemy of USSR, and things were slowly getting hotter for the Jews.  For example, despite high exam grades, my father and few dozen Jews was denied admission to Moscow University (МГУ) on account of “lack of dorm space”.  Some scandal ensued and he was accepted a month later.   By the late 1960s, after the Six-Day War, the Mathematics Department of Мoscow University settled on 0.5% quota (about 2 Jewish students in a class of 450-500), which typically went to children of the university faculty and occasional party officials.  When I applied in 1988, I was rejected as the quota remained in effect.  In 1989, things were starting to change, and the quota was raised to about 4%.  I got in.  In the meantime, I became somewhat of an expert on “Jewish problems” (see also here and there), once even holding a seminar on them.

Curiously, the officials had supported the quota very openly, justifying it as follows:

1. We need to maintain proportion of Jews the same as in the country, so as they don’t take space from ethnically Russian students.
2. Jews are already privileged by the virtue of living in large cities, but Russians from small villages need extra help to get quality education.  Of course, Jews in Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Belorussian villages were mostly killed in the WWII as part of the Final Solution.
3. Future Russia needs an educated workforce. There is no point of preparing “cadres for Israel“.  Thus the “diploma tax“.

My little brush with discrimination in the US

In 1994, already a first year grad student at Harvard, I applied for NSF Graduate Fellowhip, which was highly selective but much less generous back then.  I mailed my proposed plan of research, letters of recommendation, transcripts, and the required GRE, both General and Subject.  I was rejected.  Since I received a more selective Hertz Foundation Fellowship (see my discussion of it here), I wasn’t too upset, but I was curious what did I do wrong.  So I filed a FOIA request, and got a reply a few weeks later.

What I learned was remarkable and made me really upset.  I discovered that the NSF reviewers rated A all my materials, both the transcript, all the letters, and plan of research.  I had a maximal GRE Subject score.  But you see, me being Russian and all, I had a mediocre to poor GRE General score on the Verbal Section.  The paperwork indicated that the committee then took weighted average of all these grades, made a list of top scorers and I didn’t make the cut.  Since I could not fathom why would I need a top GRE Verbal score for Math Ph.D., this seemed clearly discriminatory, on the basis of my native language.

So I found a lawyer (tiny Cambridge, MA is full of them).  He patiently explained to me that my Russian native language is not defining me as a member of protected class, and I have no case against NSF. He said that even politically, there is no such thing as “Russian language lobby” (despite our large numbers), and given that there was no harm done (my Hertz), I should go home and learn to be happy.  Naturally, I did.

Jews at Harvard and the geographic distribution

The story of Jews at Harvard has been described in great details at a variety of sources.  In short, Harvard instituted a 15% quota, which was later softened, substituted with geographic distribution preferences, having same effect on Jewish enrollment.   The following quote about the evolution of Harvard President James Conant (1933-1953) is revealing:

Conant’s pro-quote position in the early 1920s, his preference for more students from small towns and cities and the South and West, and his cool response to the plight of the Jewish academic refugees from Hitler suggest that he shared the mild antisemitism common to his social group and time. But his commitment to meritocracy made him more ready to accept able Jews as students and faculty.

While the quotas are both illegal and a thing of the past, the use of geographic distribution in admissions never went away.  While not discriminatory in the strict legal sense, they were created with a discriminatory intent, and still have discriminatory effect, as recent immigrants, Jews and other minorities tend to concentrate in large population centers.  Not unlike the Russian “village” arguments, this is a slight of hand, which first creates and then heavy-handedly destroys a straw man, all in an effort to deal with other issues which are kept out of sight.  We will see this in other cases as well.

All students are somebody’s children

Legacy preferences is another example of misleading practices potentially having discriminatory effect.  Universities are claiming that this creates a brand loyalty.  But that is misleading of course.  Do Ivy League schools really need to develop brand loyalty when they have 10-20 applicants per spot?  The truth, of course, is that children of alumni have money and willing to pay a full sticker price of the tuition, and the admission officers aim to have about 20% of such legacy students in each freshmen class.

In fact, the honest market based solution would be to auction this portion of the freshman class to the highest bidder, charging tuition perhaps as much as 100K per year.  This auction would raise significant funds which can pay for poor students’ scholarships and stipends, and open up these admission slots to everyone, not just children of alumni.  As it is, legacy candidates get preferences in admission and, perhaps counter intuitively, have their tuition subsidized as others may potentially be willing to pay more for their spots.  Now, I am NOT advocating for this, just showing how misguided and fundamentally unfair are the current admission policies.

Texas 10% solution

This rule was enacted in response to state losing in Hopwood v. Texas, as a novel legal way to introduce diversity in admissions.  An ultimate geographic preference, this rule fills about 75-80% of  the freshmen class at the leading Texas universities.  Note that the Fisher case is about the affirmative action for the remaining spots.

But it is exactly the kind of rule which makes wrong priorities for the students and the society.  In general, it is beneficial for the society when students have a choice which K12 school to attend.  It is undoubtedly good when they study in the most challenging environment, work hardest on the most advanced courses available.  This rule pushes students to take the easiest courses in the least challenging school, aiming to attain the highest GPA and enter the coveted 10%.  And guess what – Texas students do exactly that (this in addition to other rule troubles).

A case for honesty

As it stands, the universities are on the brink of losing another affirmative action case in the Supreme Court.  Perhaps this is not immediately apparent, but they are also on the brink of a giant PR disaster when it comes to their hidden quotas for Asian Americans.  With good intentions, the admission officers and politician keep coming up with twisted, misleading, uncomfortable and occasionally self-contradictory rationale as to why they do what they do (see above).   The problem is – with all the history, we’ve seen this all before, and nobody is buying it.  With so much public pressure, they probably have to stop and own up to their choices.

I think it is clear what many top colleges are doing.  They have a goal of a freshmen class which would have f(x)% students with property x, for many different x, which can be race, gender, wealth, political connections, geographic location, sexual orientation, sports, music, science and other achievements, etc.  So they produce all these policies like the early action, and many rationalizations aimed at reaching that goal.  One should have a lot of chutzpah to believe to know exactly the “right mix” function f, but of course they think that…

If it was up to me, I would give the universities a complete freedom to accept whoever they want without fear of lawsuits, in exchange for complete transparency.  Education is really not like housing or employment, it is fluid and highly competitive.  In exchange, make the universities publish the exact numbers of how many students with every property x have applied and got accepted.  For the sake of anonymity, delete all the names and zip codes, and publish on the web the rest of the data from their applications.  Let the future applicants, or nonprofits on their behalf, decide their chances of acceptance and make rational choice whether to spend their $75 and endless hours applying to that school.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, but you have to let colleges compete with each other, which is the most fair and offers the best model of education.

Finally, when it comes to Asian Americans – Harvard and the rest of the Ivies should just apologize, and starting next year accept twice as many as this year, to compensate for the real or perceived discrimination.  Otherwise, a hundred years from now, somebody might still be writing how stupid and morally twisted were these old early 21st century admission policies.

Warning:  Here I neither endorse nor reject the affirmative action, but rather advocate for some honesty, clarity and transparency.

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  1. January 19, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    (my background – I got a Master’s degree in math in Poland, now I’m a PhD student in Canada)

    Thanks for an insightful post. I especially like the final recommendation to use less overt regulation of the admission process and at the same time make it completely transparent.

    Note, however, that this makes sense not only when it comes to discrimination, affirmative action etc., but also e.g. in the case of grad school admission, where presumably this sort of prejudice is less of an issue. One thing that was annoying to me (and not only to me) when applying to grad school is how little actual information one has, regarding what is valued in the applicants by the admissions committee, what sort of people can expect to get where (e.g. “I have 2 publications in journal X, GPA Y, participated in Z and W, recommendations for profs Alpha and Beta – would university Q be likely to accept me or not?”) and so on. Lack of reliable information about one’s chances to get admitted turns the admission process to some extent into a broken lottery, where you can apply to however many places you want, but you don’t have any estimate of your winning chances.

    Making this process transparent (i.e. publishing CVs and research statements of admitted candidates, of course probably edited if someone doesn’t want to make their data public) would be a welcome remedy for this problem, although probably unlikely to actually get implemented.

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