My father likes to tell a story about my grandfather, a former professor at Columbia’s school of public health. At a meeting with colleagues in the faculty club at Cornell Hospital, he noticed the presence of Jews, Italians and other ethnic groups at the table, and recalled the ugly history of ethnic discrimination in college and medical school admissions. “Years ago they wouldn’t admit us into this school,” he remarked. “Now look where we are.”
When will Asians have this moment?
It’s hard to deny that the admissions process is stacked against Asian students. A study on affirmative action by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade showed that when numerous factors are controlled for, Hispanic students receive a admissions boost equivalent to around 130 points on the SAT, while black students receive a boost of 310 points. Asian students, however, face a 140 point penalty. It was therefore no surprise when, after California outlawed the use of racial preferences in admissions, the representation of Asian Americans jumped significantly at University of California schools.
We can’t really gauge Cornell’s role in penalizing Asian applicants, mostly because the admissions office is always hesitant to reveal information about minority students. However, we must pay careful attention to our treatment of Asian students. I do know of one former admissions officer who likes to boast about rejecting scores of Asians because he didn’t want them in his classes. Given the faculty condescension towards Asian students that I and many others have observed, it wouldn’t surprise me if more admissions officers acted on similar impulses.
True, any information on this phenomenon is anecdotal. However, this will also be true years from now. We won’t uncover evidence of rigid quota systems, or committees tasked with addressing “the Jewish question,” a la Harvard and Yale in the early 20th century. I suspect, though, that future interviews with former admissions officers will reveal that “the Asian question” — what to do about massive numbers of qualified Asian applicants? — has been both a persistent worry and a major factor in admissions decisions.
Such subtle discrimination would be consistent with Cornell’s history. We never instituted a rigid quota system for Jewish students; however, there was always an underlying concern that Jews might overtake the University due to their disproportionate success on standardized tests. Therefore, President Livingston Farrand asserted that though “Cornell had not adopted any general anti-Semitic rule,” it could not “permit itself to be so flooded by Jewish students as to kill non-Jewish attendance.” Though we do not know how this affected Jewish admissions at the undergraduate colleges, a similar attitude likely influenced the dean of Cornell’s medical school, who in 1940 described his attempt to “limit the number of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population of the state.”
I have no doubt that admissions officers now use similar rhetoric about “flooding” with regards to Asian students, both at Cornell and around the country. Of course, this is not entirely unwarranted: If Cornell wishes to create leaders for many different segments of our society, a class of qualified students representing mostly one ethnic, racial, socioeconomic or political group is undesirable. However, history suggests that this attitude may both reflect and reinforce widely held, yet unwarranted, cultural stereotypes.
And indeed, many members of the student body will also lump together all Asian students. This has a decisive impact on our social fabric. Indeed, it is no secret that many of our campus organizations — especially, but not exclusively, fraternities — have an unspoken fear of appearing “too Asian,” just as many of Cornell’s fraternities, sports teams and ROTC units were careful not to accept or promote too many Jews in the early 20th century.
Jewish students eventually overcame discrimination in both college admissions and campus life. However, their success story provides little guidance for Asian students for a few important reasons. The first is that Jews succeeded due to the University’s newly placed emphasis on merit, as measured by exam scores and grades. As Espenshade showed, Asian applicants’ merit won’t get them in the door.
More importantly, the “Asian question” has emerged after we’ve made tremendous strides toward eliminating racial discrimination, and after our society has determined which minorities should benefit from racial preferences. Our institutions — particularly college admissions officers — have little room to accommodate new minority groups.
A Chinese friend once expressed frustration with his campus organization, because, by his telling, at their recruitment meeting they considered their Asian applicants as interchangeable but other ethnic minorities as worthy of individualized attention. “I think it’s really sad,” he said, after we discussed his story in light of Jewish quotas. “So many Chinese parents dream of sending their kids to America, but they have no idea that this is happening.”
His statement resonated deeply with me, but his subsequent point, that Asian students will continue applying to Cornell no matter how poorly we treat them, resonated more. In their minds, the opportunities represented by our institution, and by our country, outweigh any discrimination they might anticipate or even experience. All citizens, and all students — especially those like myself, whose grandparents faced similar challenges but persevered — must live up to their expectations.
Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.