As quotas of preference were gaining attention as a hot issue on American campuses, a new controversy began brewing over quotas of exclusion.
This controversy centers on allegations that some major universities and professional schools restrict the number of Asian-Americans they will admit. The issue has been getting increasing attention in Congress, governmental agencies and the news media. Asian-Americans, a fast-growing segment of the population and an increasingly influential one, complain that these maximum quotas violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act's prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.
Responding to complaints, the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights in 1988 undertook an investigation of the admissions policies at UCLA and Harvard. The department declared last October that UCLA had indeed violated the civil rights of Asian-Americans who had applied to the university's graduate program in mathematics. This marked the first time a federal agency had found illegal discrimination against Asian-Americans in higher education.
The Asian-Americans' complaint against Harvard focused on the university's policy of granting preferential treatment in admissions to the children of alumni, or “legacies,” and to outstanding athletes—two groups that contain few Asian-Americans. Last October the Education Department ruled that the consideration Harvard gives to legacies and to athletes is shared by many institutions and does not constitute illegal discrimination. It accepted Harvard's contention that some preference for legacies is necessitated by alumni-fundraising considerations.
This controversy comes at a time when the presence of Asian-Americans on college campuses is growing dramatically. In 1976, according to Don T. Nakanishi, a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education, there were 150,000 Asian-American undergraduates throughout the country. By 1986 the number had nearly tripled to 448,000.
And Asian-Americans as a group accumulate relatively high grade averages in high school and score well on college entrance exams. The result has been that, by quantitative measurements, Asian-Americans compete powerfully for enrollment at America's most prestigious universities. And yet statistics indicate they are admitted at rates significantly below those of other groups.
At the heart of the controversy, some experts and commentators argue, is affirmative action programs aimed at aiding other minorities, such as blacks and Hispanics, who as groups don't score as high in high school grades or college entrance exams. In order to ensure positions for members of these groups, according to this view, college officials effectively place limits on Asian-Americans.
“You cannot have the statistical representation of all groups in proportion to their percentage of the population if you use performance as a criterion,” argues Thomas Sowell, a black economist and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Thus, he says, college administrators hold back Asian-Americans in order to protect what they consider to be “their prerogative to mix and match different groups to present a pretty public relations picture.”
Sowell and others suggest such policies are akin to the practice of Harvard and other prestigious universities before World War II of placing a quota limit on admissions for Jews. “Asians have, in effect, inherited the anti-Semitic quotas of the past,” Sowell says.
But some liberal commentators criticize conservatives for using the Asian-American admissions controversy as a rhetorical weapon against affirmative action programs. Referring to an ongoing debate over the issue at the University of California at Berkeley, syndicated columnist Clarence Page says, “The Berkeley problem was not ‘reverse discrimination.’ It was plain, old-fashioned discrimination of a sort affirmative action programs were intended to remedy, not create. The big difference this time is that it penalizes a people who have a reputation for over-achieving.”