November 6, 2007

A Changing Affirmative Action

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The Asian and Asian-American populations of universities across the country have increased substantially in recent years. This trend has been especially apparent at upper-level universities like Cornell, where the Asian student population has increased to 17 percent of total undergraduate students.
According to the Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force, in 2000, Asian and Asian Americans made up 14 percent of the student body, 16 percent of undergraduate students, 55 percent of international students (undergraduate and graduate) and over 60 percent of the minority undergraduate enrollment. The U.S. Bureau of Census also found that Asian Americans are the second-fastest growing racial and ethnic group, growing 48 percent between 1990 and 2000.
This demographic shift is reflected in many ways throughout Cornell’s campus. There are several student organizations for Asians, including Chinese Student and Scholars Asso­ciation. These groups work for awareness of Asian and Asian-American issues, offer pre-professional experience and promote social networking.
The increase in Cornell’s Asian population has also affected the courses of study of the University, which include over 25 classes specifically devoted to Asian and Asian-American history and culture. The Department of Asian Studies also offers courses in over 15 different languages.
This increase in the Asian populations of American universities was originally a result of affirmative action policies according to Asian-Nation, a website focused on providing its readers with an overview of the historical, demographic, political and cultural issues of the Asian American community. Its website states, “When affirmative action was first implemented in the early 1970s, Asian Americans benefited from it in large numbers … Since that time, Asian Americans have achieved notable successes in educational attainment, employment and income — so much so that Asians are frequently called the ‘model minority.’”
While affirmative action policies may have given Asians opportunity, many believe that the Asian culture’s emphasis on the importance of family and a strong work ethic contributes to their success.
Xiao Liu ’11, who emigrated from China when she was nine years old, explained how her upbringing motivated her to achieve.
“There is a tradition and reputation to live up to,” Liu said. “Not only does it have to do with individual success, but also my family stressed for me to be successful. The whole reason why I am in this country is to better myself. Part of it is for financial and economic needs. In order to achieve success, one has to have a better education.”
Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, said that while he may see some validity in attributing common characteristics to a specific race, he also sees the danger in making these assumptions.
“It is definitely misguided to make generalizations of a race’s culture, regardless of whether these assumptions are positive and negative,” Clegg said. “Colleges must look at each student individually and not by any racial background. With that being said, social problems common to some races have hurt their success … Such problems, along with deficiencies in the public educational system, harm certain races’ chances of success. Affirmative action, however, is not the right solution to these problems.”
Regardless of the past causes for their success, students of Asian descent are now being subjected to reverse discrimination, according to Clegg.
Clegg sees universities’ attempt to diversify their campuses as an unjustifiable reason for their discrimination of qualified applicants.
“As America becomes a multicultural society, it becomes more untenable to have a legal system that looks at race and allows institutions to discriminate by race,” Clegg said. “When universities preference applicants based on race and ethnicity, Asian American and white students are treated unfairly.”
In its recent studies of Michigan undergraduate law and medical programs, the Center for Equal Opportunity confirmed their fears that universities were favoring students by race and not academic ability, hurting mainly Asians and white applicants.
As an undergrad, Bhavna Devani ’05 was a part of various organizations like Society for India and Cornell Asian Pacific Student Union. Currently, while working toward her Ph.D in government at Cornell, Devani acts as an advisor to programs such as the East Coast Asian American Student Union Conference. Although Devani may not completely endorse the current affirmative action system, she refuted the idea that affirmative action is another form of racial injustice.
“The affirmative action system is in need of repair,” she said. “However, its purpose is to rectify the systemized historical racial inequality in the U.S. Our society is structured so that certain people are unable to achieve success. Affirmative action is a small attempt to correct these wrongs.”
In addition, Devani rejected the model minority perception of Asian Americans. Not only is it false, she said, but it also has other negative results.
“Many perceive Asians as being able to do better than they actually can. As a result, Asian students can be overlooked and they feel inhibited to ask for help. The whole idea of a model minority is a way to pit the Asian minority against other minorities,” she said.
When looking to the future of Asians on Cornell’s campus, Devani hopes for a stronger focus geared toward Asian students.
“I hope to see a lot more structural support for Asian students,” said Devani. “A community center and a permanent assistant dean position focused on Asian culture would not just give Asian students a safe environment to express themselves, but it would also allow other students to learn about an important part of history.”
Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, disagrees with the idea that students of Asian descent must attain a higher level of achievement in order to gain admission into Cornell.
“The increase in admissions application makes the process more competitive for all applicants,” Davis said. “As an institution that uses a holistic admissions process we are seeking to admit students who will both contribute to and benefit from the Cornell community.”