Why Asian Americans need to learn to stop complaining about education discrimination and start building institutions of higher learning, they deserve
Recently, news organizations have been spilling gallons of ink discussing the controversy surrounding the discrimination and adversity facing Asian American students as they prepare to apply for their college or university of choice.
This treatment of Asian American students in America’s elite institutions of higher learning is being scrutinized as more families find their children increasingly locked out of the most desirable educational opportunities America offers. They are mad, and rightfully so.
Many riveting and sensational court cases are going through the federal court system. One of the most prominent was Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (2022), which was argued in front of the United States Supreme Court. The case facts consist of accusations allegedly accusing Harvard College’s undergraduate admissions officials of systematic discrimination against Asian American students. The case implicates (involves) Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This and other cases share a variation on a theme. A bright young Asian American student. A 4.0 G.P.A. A top percentile college entrance exam test score. A perfect record. A dream student for any academic institution. But educational dreams quickly become affirmative action nightmares as Asian American students’ academic ambitions are drowned out by America’s economic, political, and racial realities.
To understand these complex realities, it is necessary for us first to understand the purpose for which America’s Ivy League institutions exist. They exist not to primarily educate young scholars, although they do so very well, but rather to maintain and perpetuate elite power distribution in American society.
Evidence of this purpose is plain as one can discern function from form. According to Forbes, 14 percent of Harvard University’s entering class in 2022 were legacies-children of former Harvard University students- of those students’ 70 percent were white. The full ethnic breakdown of Harvard University's admissions statistics can be found here.
These students did not gain admittance for superior grades or a unique personal story. They got in because their parents got in. In other words, affirmative action for the rich and well-connected. Are you familiar with the Varsity Blues Scandal, which broke between 2011-2018? I won’t go into too much detail here, but I mention it to highlight that most of the families caught up in that FBI operation were white and affluent.
This story was a clash of new and old money, an object lesson regarding the proper and improper means of bribing a university, and an exercise of power by one class over another. Old money adds new wings to schools and endows scholarships and grants. New money bribes low-level university officials and goes straight to federal prison and do pass go and do not collect $200.
Unequal treatment has existed for all Americans in many forms throughout the over 250-year history of the United States of America. Our country’s history is a unique history of individuals and groups often cooperating and just as often competing. It is now an overlooked fact because the policies of Harvard University have been reformed substantially, but until 1910 most applicants could not be accepted into this Ivy League Institution unless they were protestant, white, male, and from a “good family.”
That often meant that Catholics, Jewish people, and African Americans were excluded from admission. This had the effect of forcing these groups to create their own institutions of higher learning. It is no coincidence that the first and oldest Catholic University, Villanova, was founded in 1842, 68 years before the Harvard University “insiders” opened their doors to the “outsiders” like Catholics, blacks, and Jewish people.
Why did the waspy mandarins of Harvard College’s yesteryear open their gates to the outsiders? Could it be because of altruism or Christian brotherhood? Unlikely, First and foremost, Harvard and the other Ivy League institutions existed to perpetuate existing power relationships in American society.
Initially, the protestant establishment believed that the best way to maintain their positions in a changing America was to bar other groups from admittance into their institutions. This strategy failed.
These discriminated groups created their own institutions of higher learning. African Americans, for example, created the first Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1837 while most black Americans were still enslaved. In 1867 African Americans founded the most prominent of the HBCUs in the United States, Howard University. It’s no coincidence that in 1866, Richard Theodore Greener was the first African American admitted to Harvard College.
In an article entitled, The Rationale for Restriction: Ethnicity and College Admission in America, 1910-1980, Harold S. Wechsler wrote that Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, from (1909-1933) was extremely hostile to the admittance of Jewish American students into the hallowed halls of his institution. Lowell often spoke of the importance of limiting Jewish admittance through various means for fear that if the percentage of Jewish students increased past a certain point, protestant students would no longer desire to attend Harvard.
In this period, admissions discrimination took place even though a system of group quotas was not then in place. However, they were advocated for at the time as superior to the individual-based decision-making process. Individual-based decision-making is far more subjective, less structured, and less likely to deliver a diverse student body.
It is the height of irony that Asian American students are now in courts though out the country, undermining an admissions system that has seen them, as a group, be more than fairly represented—all the while seeking to return us to a method of admittance under which hardly any Asian Americans were admitted. Jewish Americans responded to the educational discrimination they faced by founding many Jewish American colleges and universities in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the American Jewish University, the Baltimore Hebrew Institute, Gratz College, Yeshiva University, and Stern College.
As I stated previously, the shift in policy regarding admittance was no coincidence; the protestant elites were beginning to understand that they did not have a monopoly on intelligence or capable men and, later, women. Their strategy for maintaining control shifted with this new understanding. They sought to enroll the best and the brightest from every group into their elite institutions.
They sought to integrate these non-protestant men of ability into their power structures with the purpose of giving said power structures a new life and vigor. No longer would the outsiders challenge their system and threaten their positions in the hierarchy of American power. Instead, they were incentivized and coopted to strengthen American society's traditional protestant power structure.
This is the historical background in which the recent controversy of discrimination against Asian American university applicants plays out. Ironically Asian Americans are victims of their own group and individual successes as they have long been depicted as the nation's most prosperous model minority group.
Many Asian Americans believe that the most effective solution to the educational discrimination they are confronting is civil rights challenges in the courts. Still, those challenges will not provide the long-term solutions they seek. As I stated previously, these Ivy League institutions are not wedded to a particular form of biased admissions procedures.
If a court, even the Supreme Court, were to strike down a specific admissions policy as unconstitutional, the institutions would adopt a new methodology. They seek to maintain specific admission ratios. They don’t care how those are achieved. One example can be seen with the shift in the admissions policy of many prominent American universities, such as Harvard, Brown, and Stanford Universities, to using “Test Optional” admissions policies. Since 2022 these universities no longer require ACT or SAT scores for admissions, as a reaction to the many legal challenges to their admissions practices. Given this reality, there is only one real solution to this acute educational crisis confronting the Asian American community. Asian Americans must build their educational institutions, like every successful American minority group before them.
I am not the first person to suggest this idea; Hun Loo Gong, an Asian American tech. Billionaire, who “designed the first chip that enabled laptops to automatically read both Apple and PC software in Chinese and English, was rejected from Harvard in 1981,” had a similar idea. After being rejected, he received a scholarship from Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, a historically black university, although he didn’t know it then.
There, he discovered the original purpose of HBCUs and was inspired to create the first of what he and a group of unnamed Asian American millionaires termed Historically Asian American Colleges and Universities in California. Mr. Gong said that he would name the school Vincent Chang University after an Asian American man who was killed. However, I found no information about the project’s current status besides an article written in 2013. I recommend all those interested read the full 2013 article; it is fascinating, and Mr. Gong is an interesting character.
This is the way forward, not complaining that Harvard will only allow 27 percent Asian American admittance. In my view, it is a shame that no institution of higher education exists in this country founded by Asian Americans. That is both shocking and, as history shows, Un-American. As one of this country’s most prosperous minority groups, Asian Americans should stop complaining about other people’s institutions and start the long, arduous journey of institution building. I, for one, stand ready to welcome our Asian American compatriots and the world-beating colleges and universities I know they can produce and will produce.