By Russell Nieli
Ron Unz's cover story in the December American Conservative -- "The Myth of American Meritocracy" -- has generated an extraordinary level of commentary in popular magazines, op-ed pages and Internet blogs. The article deals with the many non-meritocratic practices in the admissions policies of America's most elite universities, especially the eight Ivy League institutions. The extensive attention and commentary lavished on Unz's article is fully warranted for it breaks new ground on old controversies while opening up some new controversies along the way.
In its more than 30 pages of text, 15 separate charts and graphs, five pages of densely packed endnotes, and eight separate online appendices Unz's article presents a powerful, data-driven indictment of the fraudulence and dishonesty of Ivy League institutions, particularly in regard to their admissions of Asians, Jews, and non-Jewish whites. Even longtime readers of Minding the Campus, who are familiar with some of the more dubious practices Unz explores, will find the situation Unz documents considerably worse than what they previously thought. Two of the most salient conclusions of his study might be summed up under the headings "Asians as the New Jews," "Jews as the New Establishment WASPs."
Asians 16% at the Ivies
Anyone who has followed the college admissions scene over the years knows that it is much more difficult for Asians -- America's "model minority" -- to get admitted to the most competitive colleges in the U.S., not only in comparison with blacks and Latinos, but with whites as well. In their widely publicized study of admission to several high-end colleges and universities, sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford found that at the private schools they surveyed, after controlling for many complicating variables, black students enjoyed an admissions boost equivalent to 310 SAT- points (out of 1600) over whites, and Latinos a 130 point boost, while Asians incurred a 140 SAT-point penalty. It was much harder for Asian applicants to get accepted to competitive colleges than the members of all other groups, with the black-over-Asian admissions advantage being particularly striking (450 SAT-points). Unz cites these statistics in his study but provides much new data regarding Asian admissions to elite institutions including the eight Ivy League colleges.
One of Unz's more striking illustrations shows the proportion of Asians enrolled at each of the eight Ivy League institutions over the period from 1990 to 2011. His graph also displays the increasing proportion of Asians in the 18-21 college age group over this period and the increasing proportion of Asians in the strictly meritocratic Caltech. The result is jaw-dropping:
While Asian enrollments at the Ivies began to rise in the early 1990s, reflecting the increasing size and academic quality of Asian applicants, this abruptly ended in the late '90s and reversed itself by the early 2000s. Over the last ten years every one of the eight Ivy League institutions seems to have settled upon a de facto Asian ceiling quota of approximately 16 percent (give or take 2 percentage points) despite the fact that the number of superbly qualified Asian applicants has continued to rise.
The effect of the Asian numerus clausus can be seen, as Unz shows, in a comparison of the Ivies with the more meritocratic institutions like Caltech and the top five University of California institutions after the passage of Proposition 209 prohibiting racial preferences. At these schools Asians make up approximately 40 percent of the student body, which, under strict meritocratic admissions, is just about what one would expect in view of the outstanding Asian high school performance
Overwhelming Evidence of Achievement
Unz illustrates the Asian rise at the top of the high school achievement pyramid through a variety of means. Perhaps the best is his analysis of the list of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. The NMS semifinalists represent the top half-of-one-percent of those in each state who took an SAT-like achievement test in high school. While racial and ethnic breakdowns are not reported, the NMS Corporation publishes the names of all these high-scoring semifinalists so that a rough approximation of the ethno-racial breakdown can be obtained by a simple last name analysis (i.e. one can reasonably assume that NMS semi-finalists with surnames like Wong, Nguyen, Kim, and Dasgupta are probably Asian, those with names like Rodriguez, Fuentes, Ruiz, and Vazquez probably Latino, and those with names like Levy, Cohen, Goldberg, and Kaplan probably Jewish). The method need not be perfect to produce valuable insights, especially since the actual results are so striking.
Asian academic performance in recent years, Unz shows, has been nothing short of spectacular. While only 11 percent of California's high school students, Asians constituted almost 60 percent of California's NMS semifinalists, and the picture is similar in other states. Only 3.8 percent of Texas's population, those with Asian last names constituted over 25 percent of the state's NMS semifinalists, while even in New York State, with a very large, academically competitive Jewish population and many college-educated whites, Asians, who are just 7.3 percent of the state population, accounted for over 30 percent of the NMS semifinalists. What is even more striking, Unz explains, is that the NMS test does not play to Asian strengths, as it has a double-weighted verbal component, where past testing shows Asian ability to be much weaker than in math, and has no visual-spatial component at all, where Asians always outshine other groups.
The evidence for massively disproportionate Asian presence at the highest end of academic achievement is simply overwhelming, Unz shows. Besides the NMS semifinalists, Asian preeminence in recent years is shown among the U.S. Math Olympiad winners (58 percent Asian since the year 2000); the Computing Olympiad winners (over 50 percent Asian since 2009); the Physics Olympiad winners (81 percent Asian since 2010); finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search (64 percent Asian since 2010); and the Biology Olympiad winners (68 percent Asian since 2003). Asian students have clearly shown what can be accomplished in the American academic arena when talent, dedication, and hard work is combined with supportive families, neighborhoods, and peer groups.
'Too Many of Them' Once Again?
But like the high-achieving Jews of an earlier era, the Asians have not been permitted entrance into America's most elite educational institutions commensurate with their achievement. There are "too many of them," our college administrators seem to be saying, and they subject the Asians to unacknowledged ceiling quotas. "On the one hand," Unz writes, "America over the last two decades has produced a rapidly increasing population of college-age Asians, whose families are increasingly affluent, well-educated, and eager to secure an elite education for their children. But on the other hand, it appears that these leading academic institutions have placed a rather strict upper limit on actual Asian enrolments, forcing these Asian students to compete more and more fiercely for a very restricted number of openings."
While the Asian ceiling quotas are similar to those imposed on the Jews in the middle years of the last century, in two key respects, Unz's analysis suggests, they differ. First, the ceiling quotas on the Jews were readily acknowledged and initially defended by leading college administrators in their time while today administrators are loath to admit such quotas and when questioned about them almost always dissimulate (usually by invoking the weasel words "holistic admissions"). Even more important, however, is the vast difference between the two victim-groups in terms of media power. "The collapse of the long-standing Jewish quotas in the Ivy League during the decades following World War II," Unz explains, "only occurred as a result of massive media and political pressure, pressure surely facilitated by very heavy Jewish ownership of America's major media organs..." By contrast, Asian-Americans today neither own nor control even a single significant media outlet, and they constitute an almost invisible minority in films, television, radio, and print. For most Americans, what the media does not report simply does not exist, and there is virtually no major media coverage of what appear to be de facto Asian quotas at our top academic institutions."
A Dramatic Reversal in Academia
Even more controversial than what Unz has to say about discrimination against Asians is what he says about the dramatic reversal of the role of the Jews in academia. While the Jews early in the 20th century displayed the same kind of stellar academic performance as today's Asians, and like the Asians they were subjected to discriminatory ceiling quotas by those running the Ivy League institutions, today, Unz charges, it is the Jews who occupy many of the top administrative levels of the Ivies and who not only consent to Asian ceiling quotas but artificially prop up the number of Jewish students admitted to their institutions despite dramatic declines in Jewish academic performance at the high end. The Jewish administrators, Unz says in effect, have taken on the role of the older WASP establishment in favoring their own kind.
Some will no doubt find Unz's charges here outrageous and perhaps dismiss him as "a self-hating Jew," but Unz backs up his claims with serious data. What to this writer is most new in Unz's study is the supporting material he presents on the dramatic collapse of Jewish academic achievement over the past ten years, especially among Jews whose families have been in the United States for several generations (more recent Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union seem to be doing much better). Surveying the National Merit Scholarship list of semifinalists, the winners of the Math, Physics, Computing, and Biology Olympiads, the Intel Science Talent Search winners, and the Siemens AP award winners, Unz finds a dramatic decline in the Jewish names today compared to the recent past with a corresponding increase in Asian names and names of those presumably white, non-Hispanic, and non-Jewish. He estimates that only about 6 percent of America's highest performing students today are Jews, and while this is still three times the proportion of Jews in the national population, it is a far cry from earlier times when the very high-achieving Jews were often overrepresented in national competitions by a factor ten-to-one or more.
Despite the decline of Jews at the high end, Unz shows that the Ivy League institutions continue to keep their Jewish student population close to the high level it was in the last decades of the 20th century (with Jewish proportions in the 15-25 percent range) when Jewish achievement clearly warranted such high numbers. At Harvard, Yale and Columbia, Jews still constitute a quarter or more of the student body despite the decline in Jewish achievement relative to other groups. Unz finds this to be an unfair product of a Jewish admissions bias. The ones most hurt in terms of what their representation would be on a strictly meritocratic basis, he says, are both Asians and non-Jewish whites. In earlier generations, Unz writes, "when Jewish students, sometimes including myself, regularly took home a quarter or more of the highest national honors on standardized tests or the prestigious academic competitions ... it seemed perfectly reasonable that Harvard and most of the other Ivy League schools might be 25 percent Jewish, based on meritocracy. But the objective evidence indicates that in present-day America only about 6 percent of our top students are Jewish, which now renders such very high Jewish enrollments at elite universities totally absurd and ridiculous."
Jewish administrators in recent years, Unz believes, have become something like the new establishment in the eight Ivy League schools, and although not motivated by animus or ill-will, they tend to favor, he believes, Jews -- as well as Latinos, and blacks -- over better qualified Asians and non-Jewish whites (the latter, he says, are even more underrepresented according to meritocratic criteria than is the case with Asians). And not surprisingly, the Jews on campus don't perform like they once did. Whereas in the past, Unz says, Jewish names were common on Harvard's list of graduating seniors making Phi Beta Kappa, today, he says, "non-Jewish whites are now perhaps five times as likely as their Jewish classmates to achieve such high academic performance."
Unz is charitable in his account of high-ranking Jewish administrators. They are mostly decent and honorable people, he says, but like all human beings they are subject to unconscious biases and in-group prejudices. With four of the eight Ivy League institutions currently headed by Jewish presidents (Yale, Columbia, Penn, Cornell), Harvard (Unz's alma mater) having had two of its last three presidents Jewish (and its current president a non-Jew married to a Jew), and large proportions of the provosts and other top-level administrators of these institutions also Jewish, it is not surprising, Unz believes, to find an unconscious Jewish admissions bias. When one combines "shared group biases" with "the extreme flexibility and subjectivity" that exists in the college admissions process, one should not expect, Unz concludes, objective, meritocratic decision making. Asians and non-Jewish whites turn out to be the big losers.
There is much more to Unz's very long article than can possibly be presented here, and the remedy he proposes to admissions biases is even more controversial than the substantive material I have summarized. I urge Minding the Campus readers to read Unz's article in its entirety as it deserves to become the basis of continued discussion and debate. Unz has clearly done a bang-up job in bringing to light new developments in the academy that many would no doubt like to ignore.
Russell Nieli is a Senior Preceptor in Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and a Lecturer in Princeton's Politics Department. He is the author of Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide (Encounter Books).