Still Retreating from Race: Asian Americans in the Ivy League


“…claims that Asian American students were as well qualified but less likely than whites to gain entry to the elite schools set in motion a tedious debate over the definition of ‘excellence,’ ‘merit,’ and ‘diversity.’”

When do you think this was written? Would you believe it was 1992 when this first appeared in Dr. Dana Takagi’s Retreat From Race: Asian American Admissions and Racial Politics (p. 176)? This award-winning work chronicled the affirmative action and racial preference debates taking place at the elite level of higher education (the schools that are usually around the top 15 or 25 research university schools listed in US News and World Report). 

In it, Takagi shows that the political groups and actors involved in these arguments back in the 1980s and 1990s grew more and more mixed in their views on the merits of affirmative action and better alternatives to it (assuming it was not ameliorating social inequalities). As she states:

“Both conservatives and liberals support equal opportunity and abhor discrimination—but they disagree over how to achieve the former and how to discourage the latter. In the battleground over policy, the two leading strategies for achieving equal opportunity—racial preferences and color-blind policies—do not neatly correspond to conservative or liberal politics.” (184).

Part of the reason for this mixed response was the new complication of race that entered into the debate when Asian Americans were brought into what used to be a “white and black issue.” Takagi reminds us that the changes in Asian enrollment corresponded with changes in immigration that began in the 1960s. By 1980, Berkeley was already at 20% Asian enrollment whereas the US Asian population was hovering at around 3-4%. Much of this can be explained by immigration; highly educated and skilled workers such as nurses, engineers, laboratory scientists were recruited and hired from Asia; these adults brought their families to the US (or started them stateside). Parents with a lot of education usually encourage their children to  achieve similarly. Not surprisingly then, within about 15 years we saw an influx of high-test-scoring, multi-talented Asian young adults applying to Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton.

But a new problem emerged. It seemed that while the Asian American population was increasing rapidly in size, there should have been more qualified applicants of Asian descent who should have entered the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and other elite institutions. But that did not appear to be the case. Many interpreted this as a case of outright discrimination, and indeed federal intervention analyzed the admissions data to see whether the ratio of applicants and admits disfavored Asian Americans over others. University officials pointed out that Asian American admissions were already disproportional to their presence in the population; further they were seen as uniformly “good but not exceptional,” lacking subjective qualities like “capacity for involvement, commitment, and personal growth.” (from Yale’s definition (see Takagi p.81)).

The use of admissions data, revealed the importance of interpretation. Evidence showed that admissions of Asian Americans were capped regardless of the size of the Asian applicant pool. Some argued that this was discrimination, but others argued that this was a reflection of diversity initiatives. The latter argument asserts that there are many kinds of excellent students and the limit on Asian American acceptance was a reflection of that. Again “good but not exceptional.” Neoconservatives who once argued that affirmative action was “reverse discrimination” in which whites were the victims, exchanged this picture with that of Asian Americans. From this perspective Asian Americans were now the victims of affirmative action, making African Americans the beneficiaries of anti-Asian discrimination. More insidious was the implied message that affirmative action replaced “quality” (i.e. Asian and white applicants) for color (i.e. black applicants). As Takagi narrates, liberal university officials were on the defensive:

“At pains to reassure their public that conservative claims about declining standards were not true, the proponents of liberalism zealously reiterated their commitment to individualism and merit.” (170)

This resulted in a concession that the best way forward was to support the neoconservative solution of having admissions policy based on class, rather than race.

Does this sound familiar? Takagi’s study came to mind when I was reflecting on the debates going on in the New York Times recently over “Fears of an Asian Quota in the Ivy League.” The central question asked: “Are top colleges limiting the number of Asian-Americans they admit?” The question behind that question is: if it’s true, what’s the justification? The perceived restriction of Asian American admissions to the Ivy League returns.

What’s changed since the 1990s to 2012 in terms of admissions at elite higher education institutions? Publisher Ron Unz shows the Asian American enrollment levels in the Ivy League dropped from a high of 20% in 1993 to 16% and has remained level since then, as seen in the image capture below taken from his lengthy article.

The main change is that the population of 18-21 year-old Asian Americans has continued to climb (again due to continued high immigration and regular birth rates). Assuming that the recruiting of highly-skilled, highly-educated immigrants hasn’t changed, there are likely more eligible bright Asian American young people who should qualify for the ranks of Harvard and Berkeley. As Unz points out, Caltech is the only school that has kept pace with population growth in comparison to the Ivy League schools. What’s the difference? Caltech, a primarily math, science and engineering school admits applicants based on merit, almost exclusively.

Notice that the same pattern we saw in the late 1980s to the 1990s in the discourse seems similar to the one we’re seeing now almost 20 years later. Data is presented to illustrate 1) a disproportional presence of Asian Americans in the elite schools, and 2) a flatlining of Asian enrollment levels at these schools, beginning roughly around 1995. Neoconservatives again interpret the disparity as evidence of anti-Asian discrimination via affirmative action; liberals point out that there is no evidence of discrimination via affirmative action. As Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, points out,

“Affirmative action “simply allows admissions officers to consider an applicant’s racial background in a limited way as one of a myriad of factors that make up who he or she is. It neither condones nor facilitates racial discrimination and quotas.”

Whether or not an informal quota is actually placed on Asian American admissions into the Ivy League, it’s important to stress that 1) this is an extremely rarefied set of schools, 2) it is not a result of affirmative action. Using the dynamics of these schools as an explanation for the dismantling of affirmative action is really dangerous. To put this in numerical perspective, data from the National Center for Educational Statistics for 2011 shows that white non-Hispanic enrollment in degree-granting institutions was about 61% or 12.7 million out of 21 million students. For African Americans it was 14.5%, Latinos 13% and Asian/Pacific Islanders 6.1%. By this count, Latinos are underrepresented by about 3 percentage points relative to their presence in the US. Asian Americans are about on par with their population.

If race is allowed as a consideration for admission at schools that are just below (or a good deal below) the super-elite schools, then maybe we should consider how affirmative action works generally, rather than extrapolating from Harvard and Yale. The question of why the Asian American enrollment levels are compressed in the Ivy League is an important one to be sure, but this concern should not be conflated with the effectiveness of affirmative action overall.

The top schools to a certain extent reveal the tensions of reflecting the dual values of merit and diversity, as noted by Takagi and others. Two interesting solutions have been proposed. Sociologist Carolyn Chen advocates a hybrid system that utilizes affirmative action for underrepresented groups, and a merit system for whites and Asians.  This approach protects the potential opportunity for those groups who remain at a significant social disadvantage in America today. It changes the terms of admission for those other groups by placing them on a level playing field such that subjective factors are secondary to objective merit factors. When applied to the Ivy League, this may have the effect of readjusting the enrollment levels of Asian American undergraduates. Unz’s solution (pp.41-44 of his essay) is what he terms the Inner and Outer Ring solution. Super-elite schools should use merit criteria for 20% of each entering class and a lottery for the remaining 80%. In the latter, applicants must still pass certain minimal merit credentials, but since most of these Ivy League applicants will meet them, a lottery solves the problem of using subjective variables, as well as potential bias in admissions officers (he cites corruption and cronyism at work in the admissions processes at the Ivy League). Whether these are workable solutions remains to be seen, but in the deliberations over affirmative action, it’s important to distinguish the debate that takes place at the very top of higher education and the realities that occur further down the ivory tower. I suspect that solutions that make sense for elite schools will not be the same for lower tier schools, and hopefully our courts will know the difference.




Does Gender Matter in the Classroom?

The New York Times recently reported on a study conducted by researchers at Yale in which they found that when presented with identical resumes of two job candidates–one named John and one named Jennifer–both male and female professors in science and math more favorably evaluated the male candidate over the female candidate. This study indicates that, unfortunately, gender biases still matter in the education, and even more unfortunately, that women under-estimate the skills of other women relative to men.

Linguist Deborah Tannen

What about in the classroom? Do male and female students attribute less authority to female professors than male professors? In my experience, I have found that male students more often directly challenge my authority. In this video interview with Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen on the Colbert report, Tannen explains why women have a harder time earning authority in the public sphere. Unfortunately, she explains, what people expect from leaders (frankness, decisiveness) often differs from what people expect from women (empathy, compromise).

Recently, I discussed male-female differences in the classroom with a group of students at my university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and many of the things they said echoed themes from Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. Although I knew that men speak up in class more than women, I was stuned when one young man told me he is more likely to speak up when he doesn’t know the answer than when he does know the answer. Talking when he is not sure he’s right is a way of showing status, he explained. Women, by contrast, only speak up in class when they are quite sure they are right. As I’ve written in previous post—virtuous behavior lies in the mean of extremes such as these. Speaking up to show you know something you don’t is not helpful to classroom. Not speaking up if you are even slightly unsure leads many bright students not to make valuable contributions. One way I get around these tendencies is to require students to write reading responses prior to coming to class—this practice reduces opportunities for talking-but-not-knowing-the-answer as well as opens up opportunities for quieter students to develop confidence in their arguments.

Discussing male-female differences in the classroom with male students also led me to revise what I wrote earlier on Black, White and Gray—that female students are more relational. I now think that men and women are both relational, but in different ways. One male student told me that he would be much more likely to admit to a female professor than a male professor when he was struggling.

“I don’t want a male authority figure to see my problems, but I’m less worried about telling a woman my failings,” he explained.

His comment immediately reminded me of a student I had who I will call Joe. He was a lively, smart student in my sociology of religion class a few years ago, but suddenly didn’t show up for two weeks, even missing the midterm. When he returned to class and I asked why he had missed so much class, he explained that his brother had been killed by a drunk driver. He looked devastated and depressed and my heart broke for him.

I explained how he could make up the work he had missed for my class and then asked if he had spoken to his other professors. “I don’t know how to tell people what has happened,” he said. “I have never had to ask for an extension on anything. I don’t know what to do.”

“Joe, you must tell your professors what has happened,” I replied. “They will let you make up missed work, but you have to explain yourself.” I then immediately emailed the Dean of Students office, set up a meeting between an academic advisor and Joe so they could help him get back on track.

How could he be afraid to talk about his brother’s death, I wondered? I would have told the whole world what had happened to me. “Oh no,” one male student told me, “I would have done what he did—hide and bury my head. I wouldn’t know how to talk about something like that.”

Although I have long thought that my female students related to me in a special way because I’m female, I only then realized that my male students may also often relate to me differently because I’m female. Moreover, male students may need my help even more because they are less willing to admit their weaknesses and less willing to ask for help even when they need it.

Although I’m acutely aware that talking about male-female differences can lead to gender bias about academic abilities, I nonetheless think dialogue about male-female personality differences is needed so I can be a better professor. Once again, the virtue lies neither in ignoring male-female differences nor in exaggerating them.

Thanks to Deborah Tannen’s books, and thanks to many of my students and colleagues, I have come to know my strengths—and one of my strengths is related to my femininity: it’s easy for people to relate to me, which then means people will trust me and seek my advice. Once I have someone’s trust, then I trust they will see me with authority as well.

In summary, the equal dignity of men and women need not mean uniformity between the sexes. Building on a fundamental equality before the law and in each profession, men and women much each develop their personalities in their unique fashions. Women do have some things in common with other women that they do not share with men, and vice-versa; each individual person further also has his or her own unique characteristics. Learning about male-female differences has made me more aware of my feminine character strengths. I’ve also become more aware of how others perceive me and relate to me.

As one male colleague recently said, “You know, it took me a long to realize we need to do our work as ourselves, not like someone else would. You are very relational, you are a good networker, and it’s good to know that is your strength and build on it.”

We don’t discover our vocations in isolation but through interactions such as those I’ve described here. Although the expression of my femininity may vary across contexts, it is one part of the reality of any situation I find myself in. I’m more fulfilled as a person since I’ve stopped trying to imitate male leaders around me and embraced my feminine character as one of my strengths.


Thank You, Holden, for Being My Chancellor

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp

The email announcement from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp stating he intends to step down next June that I received on Monday caught me by surprise, and I’m still sad about it. Tuesday afternoon, I attended a special session of the faculty council, where hundreds of faculty members packed the auditorium to show their support for Chancellor Thorp and ask him to reconsider his decision.

Here is the text of the resolution hundreds of faculty voted unanimously to pass:

“The General Faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, convened in special session September 18, 2012, affirms its support for Chancellor Holden Thorp and respectfully requests that UNC President Thomas Ross decline to accept Chancellor Thorp’s announced resignation.  We believe that, despite the difficulties of the present moment, Holden Thorp remains the best person to lead our university through these challenging times.  With the university’s Faculty Executive Committee, the College of Arts and Sciences Council of Chairs, and other campus groups, we urge that President Ross, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, and the UNC Board of Governors continue to provide the support the chancellor needs to remain in office.”

After the faculty council meeting, I ran into one faculty member who works very closely with Thorp, and he too looked visibly sad. “I came today just because I wanted to thank Holden for all he has done,” I said. As soon as I got home, I sat down to write this blog just to say publicly, “Thank you, Holden, for being my Chancellor.”

To see a 2-minute video of what was discussed, and Holden’s comments the faculty, check out this video created by the UNC student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. If you look closely, I’m up in the top left corner with my arms crossed and wearing a coral colored shirt.

I first met Holden when I was a brand new faculty member at UNC. He was serving as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at that time, and on one of my first days of work I had a small lunch meeting with him and a few other new faculty. His humility was as striking as his genius. He seemed to care about the direction of the university as a whole and about the career of every single faculty member.

When he was elected Chancellor the following year, I rejoiced, knowing that same vision and genius would now be leading the entire university. I remember walking past him on campus one day  and saying, “Hi Holden!”, and he kindly replied, “Hi, Margarita.” He remembered my name. Not only had he been my Dean, he was now my Chancellor, and he remembered my name. Thank you, Holden, for calling me by my name, Margarita.

I’ve seen many wonderful things happen at UNC during Holden’s time here. I am particularly encouraged by the university’s commitment to sponsoring entrepreneurship across all disciplines, such as through the Carolina Entrepreneurship Initiative. I greatly appreciate the university’s strengthening committment to support engaged scholarship, such as through the Faculty Engaged Scholars Program.

Of late, however, most attention has gone to problems of academic integrity that are related to the unethical behavior of one faculty member and one administrator (now both gone from UNC). More attention recently went to the mis-use of university funds by two university employees for personal travel. And in both cases, the violations were in some way related to Carolina athletes or the promotion of the Carolina athletics program. I just hope that those serious problems do not overshadow Holden’s legacy and his many contributions to Carolina.

At the faculty council meeting, numerous faculty spoke highly of Holden. One faculty member in English remarked, “We have a Chancellor who is a chemist but who understands humanities!” Another faculty member pointed out that all of us, not just the Chancellor, need to contribute to the good governance of this school.

James Moeser

Then former Chancellor James Moeser took the microphone, and he explicitly directed his comment to the media. He graciously acknowledged all the hard work of the many Carolina faculty members in the room, and said that our faculty assembly–called with less than 24 hours notice–showed how committed UNC faculty really are to the Carolina way.

Former Chancellor Moeser couldn’t be more correct. And no one has taught me more about the Carolina way than Holden Thorp. Thank you, Holden, for being my Chancellor.


Tiger Alumni Giving – An Outsider’s View

Hep! Hep!

Rah! Rah! Rah!

Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!

Sis! Sis! Sis!

Boom! Boom! Boom!


’92! ’92! ’92!

This was the chant yawped at the recent legendary reunions of the College of New Jersey (aka Princeton). I had the privilege to witness this ritual experience recently and despite being on vacation, I often can’t help but keep the sociological analysis from intruding. Reunions are a sociological idea after all, it assumes that we identify with a group of people who shared the same experience – in the case of universities, it’s a college experience (whether or not it was about the educational content is a different matter). In sociological terms, alumni giving is a demonstration of institutional commitment. So the idea then is that a positive experience as an undergraduate might motivate some or many to give back financially once they have graduated. The problem of course is that time and distance tend to weaken the sense of connectedness to the school. Thus reunions can be an effective way of reigniting the flame of good times long past. And many will also see how older and newer generations of alumni also share in the chain of memory of their alma mater.

So I should mention that Princeton boasts the highest alumni giving rates of any institution of higher education,(notice that it’s nearest competitor, Dartmouth College is 11% lower in alumni giving) so of course many folks in the fund-raising scene are paying (pun intended) attention to this school to learn what works.

As an honorary tiger (and dare I say “I was a professor at Princeton” since I am a professor and I was at Princeton (for two days [cough])), I believe the reunion experience at Princeton is quite exceptional, and may be the key to its high alumni giving. So here are my observation and a few tips for universities seeking to emulate the reunion experience in order to increase alumni giving.

-Get graduating seniors to participate in the festivities. According to insiders, Princeton seniors basically spend the last two weeks before graduation hanging around campus and participating in the reunion weekend. That’s right, they have their first reunion before they leave campus. This leaves seniors with potentially one of the most positive experiences they have before leaving the school and entering into the real world.

-Don’t change a thing: My wife and I shared a student dorm room with the same California-King twin mattress bunk-bed since 1982. There’s nothing more effective in reliving the experience of being an undergraduate once more than trying to climb up to the top bunk with feet that are now 20 years older. This dorm retained its basement (yes basement) location for the communal bathroom. While I never attended this school, ah the how the smell of mold, sweaty clothes can bring back those memories of yesteryear. That and the lovely sound of a poor comrade kneeling before the porcelain throne two stalls down. And that’s precisely the point. In these uncomfortable conditions, one gains a sense of solidarity in the relative suffering that all Tigers faced.

Noted Alum Gordon Wu donation

-Change lots of things: In meeting up with my wife’s friends, I learned that numerous new buildings went up, a few buildings were completely razed and rebuilt, and some were remodeled on the inside while still retaining the Gothic exterior that is the main architectural theme at this school. To do so requires money, and nothing says “your alumni dollars go to improve this school” than seeing new buildings named after one rather generous donor.

That's science!

-Show off your multi-million dollar science stuff. We visited the geological sciences building and had an amazing opportunity to stand in several rooms where science took place. These devices help us understand the geologic record so that we can determine when major events like mass extinctions took place millions of years ago. Science usually conveys progress, and progress is costly, so why not let alumni know that their school is making progress, er, science?

-Sensory overload: Have food and drink everywhere but only at select hours. While alumni were asked to visit the food tents once per meal, the choices were delectable to be sure and one visit would be more than sufficient. Besides, the local haunts like Hoagie Haven and the 24-hour convenient store chain “Wawa” retained their status as the 1am pit stops for sandwich and beer runs. It has been a long time since I had seen a true line outside of a deli at 1am, but such is the case during alumni weekend.

-Invite Bon Jovi and Joan Jett. It doesn’t hurt to have connections with celebrities from your home state, even if they didn’t attend your alma mater. The highest reunion group is usually the 25th anniversary and not surprisingly “Living on a Prayer” could be heard at their reunion tent. What’s valuable about music of course is that the right kind draws listeners’ memories of their youthful spirit. Nothing makes you want to give money away than feeling young again. Notably jazz and other generation-appropriate music could be heard across the campus in tents for the class of ’52 and ’65 and so forth.

-Have kick-ass acapella singing groups in kick-ass acoustic spaces near the midnight hour because it’s edgy and you just had a hoagie and beer. Princeton has over 10 student-led acapella groups by now and these reunions help bring back alumni to enjoy singing once more with new members.

-Last but not least, have an amazing parade that’s been a tradition for over a century where each graduating class invents a theme that is usually emblazoned on a costume. We watched members of the graduating class of 1925, and shouted the motto above as they waved past in their golf carts. The class of ’92 was the Tiger Chef, and even honorary tigers got tchotchke. 

I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have incredibly bright graduates (The 200+ survey respondents of the class of ’92 revealed that 18% of them had a PhD) and very rich graduates (15% reported household income equaling or exceeding over 1 million a year), but I’m pretty sure it’s the reunion weekend that sends people for their checkbook. That and Bon Jovi.

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