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Turning Up the Heat on Affirmative Action Policies

Turning Up the Heat on Affirmative Action Policies
Asian American student claims his race kept him out of Princeton.
By Peter Galuszka

Conservatives were already basking in the affirmative action ban approved by Michigan voters last month when they scored another national publicity coup in their campaign against racial preferences: A Chinese-American student says he was rejected by Princeton University because he is Asian.

Alleged discrimination against Jian Li, now a freshman at Yale University, has sparked a probe by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Princeton is accused of rejecting Li because its admissions policies favor Blacks, Hispanics, athletes and the children of alumni.

“Princeton does not discriminate against Asian Americans,” says Cass Cliatt, manager for public relations at the university.

She says admissions officers look for a variety of attributes that can change from year to year. “We do not believe the case has merit,” she adds.

The Michigan vote makes the state the fourth to ban affirmative action policies, following California, Texas and Washington. That victory and the Li case have empowered anti-affirmative action activists, who have now set their sites on other states. Efforts to eradicate affirmative action in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota and Utah could begin as early as 2008, says Diane Schachterle, director of public relations for the American Civil Rights Institute, the Sacramento, Calif.-based group that tracks and supports efforts to outlaw affirmative action nationally.

“Michigan gives us political impetus and it confirms that the people understand what ‘fair’ means and they don’t want the government to distribute quotas,” she says.

At the same time the Michigan initiative is turning up the heat on affirmative action, Li’s complaints are touching a nerve among high-achieving Asian Americans. Many have long felt that they are victims of discrimination, being held to a higher standard because Asian students are perceived to excel academically. A 1995 Government Accounting Office review of the Office of Civil Right’s handling of discrimination cases involving Asian Americans noted that “Asian Americans filed a higher percentage of complaints involving admissions issues than other minority groups.”

“Asian Americans have faced racial discrimination in college admissions, and it’s quite possible they continue to face racial discrimination in the form of informal maximums,” says Frank Wu, dean of the Wayne State University Law School. “The question, however, is what is causing
this outcome? In the past, it has been preferences favoring White applicants. Yet officials have blamed affirmative action. I wouldn’t be surprised if that continues to be true.”

Asian Americans, who comprise less than 5 percent of the U.S. population, now can make up nearly one-third of the student bodies at top-ranked universities, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Two Princeton professors, Drs. Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung, published a study in 2005 that concluded that “ending affirmative action would substantially reduce the share of Blacks and Hispanics among admitted students,” thereby increasing the number of admitted Asian students. The professors examined applications from three selective schools to come to their conclusions.

In the run-up to Michigan’s anti-affirmative action vote, Roger Clegg’s conservative Center for Equal Opportunity released a study that analyzed four years of admissions data and found that Blacks admitted to the University of Michigan had average lower SAT and ACT scores and GPAs than Asians, Hispanics and Whites who were not admitted. According to Clegg, the study suggests that Asian Americans are discriminated against, as are other minorities such as Arab Americans and some Hispanics.

A study by William Kidder, a policy analyst at the University of California, Davis, notes that after affirmative action was outlawed in California and Washington, there turned out to be fewer Asian American law students at the University of California, Davis and the University of Washington. The same was not true for UC-Berkeley, however.

Indeed, the case of Li shows just how nebulous the matter is. The 17-year-old from Livingston, N.J., had a perfect SAT score, yet Princeton, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rejected him. But he was accepted at Yale, the California Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

The first complaint he filed with the Office of Civil Rights against Princeton was found to be without merit, but regulators reopened their probe after Li produced more documents. A spokesperson from the Education Department declined to comment on the case.

It is possible though that Li was rejected at Princeton simply because of very strong competition. Princeton, which has a student body that is 13 percent Asian American, accepts only 10 percent of its applicants. Last year, Princeton accepted only half of all applicants with maximum SAT scores.

“It’s difficult to admit classes from thousands of extraordinary applicants,” Cliatt says.

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