From the Community | A conversation about Asian American admissions

Nov. 1, 2022, 7:46 p.m.

On Oct. 12, Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne released a statement apologizing on behalf of the university for limiting admissions for Jewish students in the 1950s. Allegations of unfair admissions policies were brought to light by Charles Petersen, a postdoctoral fellow in the Cornell History Department, in his blog post “How I Discovered Stanford’s Jewish Quota.” Subsequently, a task force was appointed by Tessier-Lavigne to investigate the situation and found “evidence of actions taken to suppress the number of Jewish students admitted to Stanford during the early 1950s.”

In the 1950s, Stanford’s application did not ask about a student’s religion or ethnicity. Thus, former admissions director Rixford Snyder, wishing to limit enrollment of Jewish students, needed a proxy to determine whether a student was Jewish. According to the President’s statement, discriminatory practices were found in admitting students from “two high schools in Los Angeles — Beverly Hills and Fairfax — whose student populations were between ‘95 to 98% Jewish.’” Task force members “found a ‘sharp drop’ in the number of students enrolled at Stanford from those schools — 87 enrolled during 1949-1952, but only 14 in 1952-55 — that was not seen in any other public schools during the 1950s and 1960s.” In short, Snyder denied students from certain high schools with high proportions of Jewish students to work around the policy that Stanford did not make admissions decisions based on race or religion.

Firstly, I want to commend Stanford on its apology; it is rare that a university of its stature atones for its wrongdoings. However, as an Asian American, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable about the context of this apology. It comes at a time when Asian American students believe they are facing similar issues to those which Jewish students did in the 1950s, such as subjective admissions criteria and lower relative acceptance rates, which have arisen as a result of Harvard’s admissions lawsuit.

Given yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing about race-conscious admissions, I want to preface that this piece is not about “affirmative action,” which I wholeheartedly believe is vital in curating a diverse class. It is also not a piece falsely equating the barriers for Jewish students in the 1950s with those for Asian American students, as the situations are contextually incomparable. Nevertheless, I believe the recent events that have transpired warrant a discussion about the state of admissions for Asian American students.

One point of contention is that Asian Americans score lower on the “personal rating,” a score that Harvard describes as exemplifying “qualities of character” such as “courage,” “leadership” and “humility,” among other traits. The usage of “personal qualities” was also a concern in the 1950s at Stanford among the faculty admissions committee that believed the ten-point scale used to admit applicants, of which four points were devoted to the “personal rating,” was “avowedly subjective.” Today, Stanford utilizes a “personal rating” similar to both Harvard’s rating and the ten-point scale in the 1950s under a category called “SPIV,” which is believed to refer to “intellectual vitality.”

Another remark in the lawsuit is that “between 2003 and 2012, the percentage of Asian Americans at Harvard wavered only slightly above and below approximately 17 percent,” in spite of the fact that “by 2008, Asian Americans made up over 27 percent of Harvard’s applicant pool.” Similarly, one of Snyder’s concerns was “that more than one quarter of the applications from men [were] from Jewish boys,” and that growing competition among the applicant pool meant that he “needed to develop a rationale for determining which students to admit and which to reject.” While Stanford does not release applicant statistics by race, there is no reason to believe they substantially differ from Harvard’s.

Moreover, there is precedent to suggest that discrimination may exist. Stanford has discriminated against Asian American applicants in the past; in 1986, Stanford junior Jeffrey Au raised concerns about Asian American admissions and why, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the admission rate for Asian-Americans was only 65% to 70% that for whites.” Stanford’s Academic Senate Committee found that “‘unconscious bias’ caused the discrepancy in admissions rates and immediately following the report, admissions rates for Asian American students increased to 89 percent of the white admission rate.” Furthermore, in the 1980s, other elite schools such as Brown University and University of California, Berkeley found evidence of discrimination against Asian Americans, with the former concluding that there was a “serious problem” after an internal review and the latter releasing a statement apologizing for “disadvantaging Asians.”

Nowadays, potential biases that were present in the 1950s and the 1980s remain, and investigations in both historic cases have led to evidence of discriminatory practices. Stanford, if you are willing to investigate unfair admissions policies from the 1950s, which raise concerns similar to those about policies today, you ought to also investigate your policies in 2022 and make them transparent. Do we have to wait for incriminating evidence in the vein of Petersen’s discovery of Jewish quotas before engaging in such a discussion?

For my Asian American peers at Stanford, it is easy to become complacent as beneficiaries of the system. You may look at your admissions file and disagree with this piece, but it is important to realize that for your application to have been accepted notwithstanding your race, more than twenty were rejected — and we do not know why. From the task force report, Paul Seaver, who joined the Stanford faculty in 1964 from Reed College, claimed that “The kids I knew at Reed said, ‘[Stanford doesn’t] admit Jews, certainly not from Los Angeles.’” The report makes the point that part of the problem “is not whether Seaver’s impression of Stanford’s admissions processes was accurate, but that the impression was so widespread.” The same belief rings true today for many Asian American students.

So please, can we have another conversation about the policies by which you admit Asian American students? This entails discussing the uncomfortable details after controlling for factors other than race. For example:

  • What is the significance of tags such as “diverse” and “VIP,” and which subgroups and what proportion of Asian Americans receive them?
  • What does the “shaping” process look like to ensure a diverse class, and does it disproportionately affect Asian Americans?
  • Is there still an “unconscious bias” against Asian Americans as there was in 1986, and if so, how do we combat this?

Stanford, I welcome race being considered a factor in admissions so long as it helps foster equity rather than harms specific groups. All I am calling for is transparency. You can only stand to gain by improving your reputation as a school with fair admissions — however you define “fair” — among Asian American communities, the subject of which has caused controversy for several decades. We deserve to know.

Charles Li is a sophomore in the Class of 2025 interested in Data Science, Creative Writing, and Music. In his free time, he likes to practice piano at Braun Music Center, write prose poetry, listen to k-pop, and watch both versions of West Side Story.

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