Fair Play in Admissions at Elite Schools a Tough Issue@


c.1999 Newhouse News Service@

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- If the Ivy League had a mantra, it would be diversity. For 20 years it has sustained rhetorical and legal efforts to increase the representation of blacks and Hispanics at America's most prestigious institutions of higher education.

But hidden in plain sight in Harvard Yard, and at elite campuses across the country, is a dilemma of diversity that may test that mantra in complex and confounding ways: the overrepresentation of Asian and Jewish students and the underrepresentation of the white, non-Jewish majority, especially such white ethnics as Italian-Americans and religious groups as Southern Baptists and other evangelicals.

It is a touchy subject, largely unexplored and undebated, if it is noticed at all. But with America's Asian population growing, and the admissions decisions of the nation's most selective universities ever more in the cross hairs of lawsuits and public debate, it won't go away.

Right now at America's most elite school, Harvard, an estimated 20 percent of undergraduate students are Jewish, and almost the same percentage are Asian. Together, Jews, only 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Asians, only 3 percent, comprise nearly 40 percent of Harvard College enrollment. That is about the same as the percentage of Harvard students who are non-Jewish whites, a group that makes up more than 70 percent of the U.S. population.

That means that Christian whites are far more underrepresented at Harvard, relative to their numbers in the general population, than even blacks and Hispanics. Of course not all white Christians are underrepresented. The old white elite -- Episcopalians, for example -- are bearing up well, abetted a bit by the admissions preference for children of alumni. But it appears that groups like Italian-Americans and Southern Baptists do not fare so well.

Already one can see the ways in which whites of various backgrounds may begin to invoke the logic and language of diversity in pursuit of better representation for themselves, and how, in the zero-sum game of select college admissions, that cannot help but threaten the position of Asians and Jews.

As Brian Burt, who graduated from Harvard Law School last spring after three years here as a lonely Christian conservative activist, put it, ``True diversity would look entirely different than it does today.''

Or, in the words of conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, perhaps it is time for white Christians to stop resisting proportional representation and start demanding it: ``75 percent and no less.'' Borrowing a locution from President Clinton, Buchanan wrote in a January column, ``Let's make the Ivy Leagues look more like America.''

The stakes are high. These schools are the gateway to America's power elite, and how these schools define diversity will help determine the diversity of that elite. Bill Clinton, a poor Baptist boy from Hope, Ark., became president, but only after having his ticket punched at Georgetown, Yale and Oxford. Likewise, there is nothing diverse in the law school backgrounds of the nine justices of the Supreme Court -- five Harvards, two Stanfords, a Yale and a Northwestern.

It is, as Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer described it in a piece in The New Republic last year, a ``diversity dilemma.'' As he wrote then: ``Until now, underrepresentation has been an issue about minorities. But how will we talk about the problem of the `underrepresented' when they form a politically dominant majority?''

At Harvard, and throughout the Ivy League, when is now.

Speaking very roughly, at Dartmouth the combined Jewish and Asian percentage is about 18 percent; at Princeton, about 25 percent; at Duke, Cornell and Brown, somewhere in the 30 percent range; at Yale, about 45 percent; and at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, about half. In each case, at the other end of the seesaw from overrepresented Asians and Jews are underrepresented non-Jewish whites. (Schools do not tally their students by religion, but Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, makes estimates for all the schools where it is present and they are published in The Princeton Review's Hillel Guide to Jewish Life on Campus.)

More broadly, a national survey of the 1998 freshman class conducted by UCLA indicates that looking collectively at 29 of the most selective private and public universities, about 18 percent of the students are Asian, and better than 10 percent Jewish; and looking collectively at 17 of the most selective private colleges (as opposed to universities) -- schools like Amherst, Bennington, Grinnell, Mount Holyoke and Reed -- Jews and Asians were together about 20 percent of those student bodies.

Harvard's admissions director, Marlyn McGrath Lewis, says she has little patience with complaints about representation.

``Whatever you are, you feel there are not enough of you,'' she says. ``The Italians are after us. I'm sure the Irish may be too. I'm one. The evangelicals are not ones that I think have a bone to pick. They are a growth industry in the country and that's reflected in what's happening here.''

But more than that, she says, it is a ``foolish notion'' to even look at the question of college admissions -- and the ambition to assemble a class of diverse backgrounds, intellects and talents -- through the prism of group representation.

Michael Sandel, director of the Harvard Institute for Policy Studies, agrees. ``I think it's important not to view the diversity argument as giving a right to representation,'' says Sandel. ``The university's interest in diversity concerns its educational mission and also its civic mission. A diverse student body serves its educational mission by exposing students to peers drawn from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Diversity also serves the university's civic mission by enabling it to educate leaders for a pluralistic society.''

Sandel's criteria perfectly encapsulate the constitutional limits placed on college admissions decisions in the Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke decision. The court agreed that race could be a ``plus factor'' in admissions decisions so far as it contributed to the school's diversity. But, as Justice Lewis Powell wrote in his crucial opinion in Bakke, ``The file of a particular black applicant may be examined for his potential contribution to diversity without the factor of race being decisive when compared, for example, with that of an applicant identified as an Italian-American if the latter is thought to exhibit qualities more likely to promote beneficial educational pluralism.''

According to the UCLA survey, the more selective the school, the more affluent the students are and the more liberal they are. They also tend to be less religious and decidedly less likely to be born-again Christians. In other words, if diversity is what these schools want, they ought to be searching out more Christian conservatives, even though that is probably not exactly the target population those who talk the most about diversity have in mind.

To Queens College sociologist Stephen Steinberg, this is the bind that many defenders of affirmative action find themselves in for resting their case on diversity rather than what he considers the more compelling moral logic of reparations for the history of slavery, Jim Crow and continued discrimination.

``As soon as you take this argument outside history, you lose. Only history provides the logic and justification for breaking the ordinary rules of admission and access,'' says Steinberg, the author of ``Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy.''

The diversity argument may have seemed more politically and legally palatable but, says Steinberg, it is ill-prepared to defend itself against the advances of newly ``underrepresented'' groups staking their own claims to diversity's mantle. ``The whole thing begins to look like pork barrel.''

Kamil Redmond, a Harvard junior from Philadelphia who was just elected vice president of the undergraduate council, says she recoils when she hears conservatives on campus describe themselves as Harvard's true minority.

As a black woman at Harvard, she says, ``I find that so disturbing. The appropriation of the term `minority' is so powerful.'' But, she says, they are only playing at a victimhood they have not earned.

As a black classmate, Baratunde Thurston, a senior from Washington, D.C., puts it, Republicans may be scarce on campus (though Redmond's successful presidential running mate is one), but he has never seen any graffiti, ``Die Republican Die.''

Redmond says she knows being black was decisive for her admission to Harvard. But, she adds, she is good for Harvard, and any thumb on the scale nicely complements the usual thumb in the eye that comes with growing up black in America. Consider the double take of reappraisal she encounters when she informs a white person who doesn't know her that she is a Harvard student.

And while Redmond does not dismiss the diversity of white ethnicities, in the state of play of race relations in America, they are all still white.

Steinberg, who wrote about the different economic trajectories of Italians, Jews, the Irish and blacks in America in his book ``The Ethnic Myth,'' agrees. Jews, the Irish and Italians succeeded in America in very different ways, but it was only blacks whose opportunities were blocked at every turn.

Today, according to the census, Italian-Americans still lag behind those of English ancestry in college and advanced degrees, but run ahead of them, and most other Americans, in family income.

Dr. A. Kenneth Ciongoli, president of the National Italian American Foundation, whose own rough study found Italian-Americans deeply underrepresented in the Ivy League, says his real interest is not in comparing the Italian and black experiences, but the Italian experience with that of the old white Protestant establishment.

Ciongoli says that elite shunned Europe's Catholic immigrants in the first half of the century and then ``pushed them aside'' for the last 30 years as they helped their preferred minorities through affirmative action. Ciongoli's suggestion: Let the elite's children gain admission to their favorite Ivy League school with the benefit of their legacy tip, and then surrender their admission to an affirmative action candidate.

But Ciongoli agrees the burden is also on groups like Italian-Americans, who he says are notoriously reluctant to go far away to school, to pursue admission to the top schools in greater numbers.

Something of the same order may apply to Southern Baptists. Olivia Hunt, a junior from San Antonio who heads the Baptist Campus Ministry at Harvard, says only four of the 600 students in her graduating class from Winston Churchill High School went to Ivy League schools, and few others left Texas. Most folks back home don't understand why her family would want to spend all that money when she could get a good education for less and never have to leave Texas.

By contrast, Jia-Rui Chong, a senior from Cherry Hill, N.J., says her mother put enormous pressure on her to go to Harvard. ``She wanted bragging rights,'' says Chong, noting, though, that her mother is still outdone by the women back home who sent two children to Harvard. Chong is an only child.

Overrepresentation is not new, of course, and for most of Harvard's history the overrepresented were white, male and Protestant. In 1870 there were seven Roman Catholics, three Jews and no blacks at Harvard.

But by the 1920s, immigration had changed things. More than 20 percent of Harvard's enrollment was Jewish, and Harvard, like other schools, scrambled for ways to put a lid on it (though Harvard was among the least successful). For instance, says Steinberg, schools placed a new emphasis on geographic diversity to, as the New York Times reported in 1923, ``raise the proportion of country boys and students from the interior,'' where there were few Jews.

What is new today is that Jews now have been joined by Asians, replicating and, with their growing population, no doubt exceeding the Jewish presence at elite schools.

Unlike Jews, Asians are more visually identifiable and are officially counted in school and government records. Together, says Arthur Hu, a Kirkland, Wash., software engineer and writer who has become a sort of Internet pamphleteer on issues of diversity and representation, the combined Jewish and Asian presence on campus has become ``just too big to ignore.'' Almost. ``This huge sleeping monster, the Christian right, is the most underrepresented group and they don't know it,'' says Hu. But, Hu says, it is now only a matter of time until the least represented begin sounding the mantra of diversity.