Harvard, an institution that repeatedly takes center stage for its admissions policies and statistics, has recently stepped into the limelight yet again. An analysis of more than 160,000 records filed by Students for Fair Admissions shows the school rating Asian-Americans lower than other applicants on one key factor: personality traits. Common observations within the records note that Asian-American students trail behind in terms of "positive personality" — likability, courage, kindness, and being "widely respected."
Despite scoring higher than any other racial or ethnic group on other crucial measures such as test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities, personality ratings severely deflated the admissions chances of Asian-American applicants. These findings are neither new nor shocking, and least of all to the institution itself; Harvard had conducted an internal investigation of its own admissions policies in 2013 and discovered bias against Asian-Americans. However, the school never made these findings public or made any policy changes.
Accusations and defenses become increasingly heated in the context of "racial balancing," an attempt to control numbers based on race by imposing soft quotas. The lawsuit charges Harvard with systematic discrimination against Asian-American students, keeping Asian-American numbers forcibly low despite the large number of qualified candidates, "advancing less qualified white, black, and Hispanic applicants."
Issues intersecting race and ethnicity, admission policies, and equal access to education are flaring up in multiple forms across the country and institution levels, from public high schools to private colleges. Many Ivy League schools have been able to maintain steadily similar ratios of Asian-American, black, white, and Hispanic students despite fluctuating application rates and qualifications, begging the question of how they manage to hit their targets so accurately each time.
Students for Fair Admissions even likens Harvard's admission policies to "the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s." Whether such bold comparisons folding racial and temporal boundaries are accurate remains to be seen, there does seem to exist a certain ringing familiarity in these racial accusations and the frantic defenses that follow them.
However, pushing aside outraged students and parents, mysterious admissions policies delivering suspiciously steady acceptance rates across races, and the legality of actions on both sides, one core issue remains: how plausible is it for admissions officers to rate students, many of which they never meet face-to-face, on personality? The very attempt points towards a common, stereotypical attempt to paint the diverse Asian-American community with the same brush — a brush that only knows one color: "model minority." The model minority myth continues to drive wedges not only within the larger Asian-American population, but between minority groups themselves, pitting Asian-Americans against blacks and Hispanics. In a time of such intense racial, ethnic, and cultural blending, understanding undercurrents of existing tensions, within groups as well as between them, becomes evermore vital.