Asian-Americans, the New Jews on Campus

April 29, 2012

In 1966, the American Jewish Committee reported that fewer than 1 percent of American college presidents were Jews. At that time, about 1,000 presidencies had been filled since the end of World War II, and only one of them—that's right, only one—had gone to a Jew.

It wasn't for want of good candidates. Most institutions had removed their longstanding quotas on Jews, who made up 10 percent to 12 percent of American students and faculty. But when it came to choosing leaders, the committee con­cluded, "bias was at work."

It still is. Today, however, the bias has a different target: Asian-Americans. Like Jews in the 1960s, they account for just 1 percent of presidents in American higher education. And the only Asian-American to ever lead an Ivy League institution, Dartmouth's president, Jim Yong Kim, will leave the post this summer to become president of the World Bank.

But Asian-Americans face an even greater hurdle than Jews did, because they continue to face discrimination in university admissions.

Put simply, it's harder to get into college if you're Asian. And until we change that, we probably won't get many more Asian-American college leaders, either.

According to the Princeton sociologist Thomas J. Espenshade, Asian-Americans need SAT scores about 140 points higher than white students—all other things being equal—to get into elite colleges. Everyone knows that black and Hispanic students get a leg up in the college-admissions sweepstakes, but how many people realize that white students, too, benefit from affirmative action when going head-to-head with Asians?

That just doesn't make any sense. African-Americans and Hispanics have suffered discrimination across our history; whites haven't. But if we make whites compete on a level playing field with Asians, the argument goes, our colleges will become, well, "too" Asian.

That's exactly what American university leaders said about Jews in the early 20th century, of course, which is why elite institutions used quotas. Fortunately, those quotas started to come down in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as did similar limits on Jewish faculty members.

De facto restrictions on Jewish presidents lasted a little longer, as the 1966 American Jewish Committee report confirmed, but the following year, the University of Chicago appointed Edward H. Levi—the son of a rabbi—as its president. By 1971, Penn and Dartmouth had Jewish presidents.

Meanwhile, other underrepresented groups have also gained entry to the halls of university power. By 2006, 5.9 percent of college presidents were African-American and 4.6 percent Hispanic. But you can still count the number of Asian-American presidents of four-year colleges on two hands.

And you can't explain the situation without thinking about student admissions. Almost every elite institution wants more black and Hispanic students, so hiring a president from one of those groups makes sense for recruitment purposes. But appointing an Asian-American president might stamp the institution as too Asian, which is exactly what colleges are trying to avoid.

We need to ask why. After California forbade state universities to consider race in admissions, the percentage of Asian students at the University of California at Berkeley rose from 37 percent to 44 percent. At the California Institute of Technology, which similarly doesn't look at race, more than one-third of students are Asian.

Too Asian? It's hard to see how. Both institutions gained an infusion of hugely talented students, many of whom, simply because of their race, would not have gotten into other elite universities. The people who lose out are less-qualified whites, who would fare better in a system that limited Asian admissions.

And maybe that's the real story here. Beneath all of the numbers and the rhetoric, we're simply afraid of an ethnic minority that has done too well for itself. That's why Jews were so threatening for so many years. Now it's Asians. Shame on all of us for making the same mistake twice.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory (Yale University Press, 2009).