Asian Americans' complaint against 'unfair' Harvard admissions underlines need for meritocracy

Amy Wu says a lawsuit against Harvard for alleged discrimination against Asian Americans reflects widespread unease with a practice that will erode society's competitiveness

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 12:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 12:21pm

Last month, a coalition of Asian American groups filed a lawsuit against Harvard University for discrimination in its admissions practices. It was about time.

The lawsuit argues that Harvard is unfairly rejecting high-scoring Asian American candidates on racial grounds. According to third-party research, Ivy League institutions such as Harvard discriminate against such candidates, not least by setting them a higher bar for standardised test scores.

The lawsuit has its supporters, but there's also been a firestorm of backlash against Asians. And while the lawsuit is based on race, the more critical argument that is too often sidelined concerns merit.

Merit needs to be fostered. Whether it's university admissions, employment or a sports team recruitment, available positions should go to the most qualified candidates. This is for the good of both the organisation and the individual. Companies should hire candidates that best meet the needs of the job.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against diversity. Ideally, people of various backgrounds and cultures contribute to the richness of a society. Racial and ethnic diversity can potentially and ideally add desired resources to underserved communities.

A case in point is the US medical world, where three out of four physicians are white/non-Hispanic, 17.2 per cent are Asian or other races, and just 5.3 per cent are Hispanic and 3.8 per cent black. Understandably, some predominantly black communities may feel more comfortable going to health care providers who share a similar skin colour. However, more often, I hear people say they choose their doctors based on skills.

A good friend at a medical school pointed out that some Hispanic and black applicants will be accepted to the college on a lower admissions test score than applicants of other races. But, very often, those students need remedial classes to bring them up to the level of their fellow students. The institution needs to bring in additional resources to try to get them up to speed.

The students themselves know they are "special"; they would not qualify for admission based purely on academic and school activity records.

Altering and lowering the bar to admit students who simply aren't qualified is doing them a disservice. These students risk being overwhelmed and their chances of dropping out, losing confidence and becoming disillusioned are heightened.

Again, the argument extends beyond race. Last year, more than 8,000 Chinese students were expelled from US universities because they performed poorly or cheated, according to WholeRen Education, a US consultancy that caters to Chinese students. And rightfully so, because they didn't qualify.

On the flip side, why should those who are qualified - in this case, high-scoring Asian American students - need to sacrifice a piece of the pie for another racial/ethnic group who are poorer performers? Maybe universities need to find a way to increase the size of the pie?

In the US, there are a myriad of programmes, such as the government-funded Head Start programme, that attempt to equalise the playing field for children from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

Why not, then, focus on expanding such programmes from nursery school to primary and secondary schools as a potential remedy? At some point, we must put aside the race debate and focus on merit for the good of the whole, to keep society competitive.

After all, wasn't it the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping who argued that, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice"?

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator