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University Quotas


University Quotas

by Kenneth Lyen

Jay Mathews wrote in the Washington Post of 12 October 2004, asking if there should be college quotas for Asians?

Asians represent only 4% of the United States population, yet they make up 40% of the University of California, Berkeley. Similarly, Jews make up only 3% of the American population, and yet they comprise 33% of Harvard University.

According to some commentators, these two minority immigrant communities are so successful that in the past they have been actively discriminated against by certain universities. For example, in the 1980s, the universities of Stanford and Brown had turned down relatively more Asian applicants compared to other ethnic groups. Indeed Brown University published a report admitting to "cultural bias and stereotypes."

Affirmative action in favor of African American candidates was instituted by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. This meant that a quota of places was set aside for African Americans who met a minimum academic standard for admission.

However the use of racial quotas and minority set-asides was challenged in the law courts in 1978 when Bakke challenged the University of California. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5–4) that quotas could not be used to reserve places for minority applicants if it denied white applicants a chance to compete for those places.

In 1989 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of claims of reverse discrimination. This meant that white applicants could challenge the institution if they felt that they were discriminated against.

In 1996, Hopgood, a white applicant, challenged the University of Texas’s affirmative action program arguing that the university was wrong to use race as a factor in its admission policy. The Supreme Court upheld the lower-court ruling that the University of Texas's affirmative action program was unconstitutional.

In 2003, there were two landmark rulings involving admissions to the University of Michigan and its law school. The Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of affirmative action, but it ruled that race could not be the preeminent factor in a university’s undergraduate admission policy.

The situation in Malaysia is of considerable interest. In 1973, the Malaysian government implemented an affirmative action program, setting aside a quota of 55% of university places for Malay, and the remaining 45% for Chinese and Indian students. The university quota system created considerable unhappiness among the Chinese and Indians. In 2002, it was found that Malay students constituted 69% of state university places, and this was interpreted by the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to mean that fewer Chinese and Indians were applying for these places. In 2003 the university quota system was officially abolished.

Critics of affirmative action in Malaysia said that it had a negative impact on the country. Many Chinese and Indians went overseas for their tertiary education, often not returning to Malaysia, and therefore contributing to its brain drain. Affirmative action tended to drive a wedge between the races and thereby vitiating racial harmony.

I rejoiced when the racially-based policy for university admission was revoked. Already there were cases in which ethnicity was becoming difficult to define because of increased interracial marriages. Furthermore, to place a quota on, say Asians as a whole, is inappropriate because Asians are not a homogeneous group. Japanese, Koreans, Malays, Indonesians, Filipinos, Thais, Bangladeshi and Indians are very different. Even the Chinese from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mauritius, Australia and the Caribbean are quite different from each other.

Here I must confess that I am caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, I believe that an undergraduate admission process should be color-blind and ethnic-blind. But on the other hand, I think there is virtue in ethnic and cultural diversity. I would like to see multiracialism achieved through an enlightened admission committee, rather than enforced by mindless quota restrictions.

Perhaps what New York University Medical School is doing to attract certain groups of minority students provides the type of solution that I might favor. This medical school is wooing black and Hispanic students by giving them the VIP treatment. These students are invited to New York and entertained at restaurants, nightclubs, and a Broadway show. All expenses paid. This attempt to increase racial diversity seems to be working.

While university admission policies should be based predominantly on academic and extracurricular criteria, there is value in striving for a lively mix of cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Indeed world class universities are distinguished by their extraordinarily cosmopolitan population. The energy created by this heterogeneity is most invigorating.

Can this be achieved without quotas?