Rejected applicant alleges bias against Asians
Yale freshman Jian Li has filed a federal civil rights complaint against Princeton for rejecting his application for admission, claiming the University discriminated against him because he is Asian.
The complaint, which was filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights on Oct. 25, alleges that the University's admissions procedures are biased because they advantage other minority groups, namely African-Americans and Hispanics, legacy applicants and athletes at the expense of Asian-American applicants.
"We've been notified of the complaint and asked to provide information to the Office of Civil Rights, and the University will provide the Office of Civil Rights with the information that it has requested," University spokeswoman Cass Cliatt '96 said yesterday. "But I will say that we do not believe that the case has merit."
The case, first reported this weekend by The Wall Street Journal, injects new life into a longstanding debate surrounding affirmative action and whether race can or should be a factor in college admissions. Li's minority status adds a new twist to the story, however, since previous complaints about universities' racial preference policies have been filed by white students alleging bias.
Li cites a recent study conducted by two Princeton professors as evidence for his case. The study, published in June 2005, concluded that removing consideration of race would have little effect on white students, but that Asian students would fill nearly four out of every five places in admitted classes that are currently taken by African-American or Hispanic students.
Current legal precedent on the question of racial preference grew out of two lawsuits filed in 2003 against the University of Michigan. In those cases, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges could use racial preferences benefiting underrepresented groups like African-Americans and Hispanics, but that quotas, points and other "mechanistic" policies are unconstitutional.
In Li's case, however, "you have a minority candidate, but a minority candidate from a category that is not regarded by the [court] as an underrepresented category," University politics professor and noted constitutional scholar Robert George said. "This is a minority candidate who is saying, 'I don't want my race to be counted for me or against me, but for my race not to be counted against me, it is important that no race be counted in any way that reduces my chances of admission.' "
"So you have two different categories of minority whose interests are allegedly in conflict."
The question now is whether a newly configured court — which now includes conservative justice Samuel Alito'72 — could reverse its earlier decision and deem all racial preferences in the college admissions process unconstitutional.
Li said in a phone interview yesterday that people have misconstrued his motives for filing the complaint. "I'm fine here," he said of being at Yale. "I'm just doing this because I want to do something about the situation. I want to bring attention to it."
Currently, Li said, colleges discriminate against Asian-Americans on the basis of their ethnicity or race. "I'm not saying that people with the highest SAT scores should be admitted to universities," he said. "Lots of things should be considered beyond that, but I don't think race should be one of them."
Li, who has a perfect 2400 SAT score and near-perfect SAT II scores, was rejected this past year from five of the nine universities he applied to — Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania — and accepted to four: CalTech, Rutgers, Cooper Union and Yale.
Princeton maintains that its admission policies do not discriminate against Asian-American or members of any other race. "We treat each application individually and we do not discriminate on the base of race or national origin," Cliatt said. "To the contrary, we seek to enroll and do enroll classes that are diverse by a multitude of measures."
With thousands of excellent applicants competing for a little over 1,000 spots, the process of selecting a freshman class involves difficult decisions, Cliatt said. Only about half of the applicants with perfect SAT scores, for instance, were admitted last year, she said.
A study published in October by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group which advocates colorblind admission and says colleges are "legally vulnerable" to challenges from Asian students, found significant differences in the median SAT score of admitted students from various racial groups at the University of Michigan.
In 2005, the median SAT score for Asian students was 1400 points, out of a possible 1600 under the test's old scoring regimen. The score for white students was 50 points lower, while the scores for African-American and Hispanic students were 240 and 140 points lower, respectively.
The University of Michigan has publicly dismissed that study's methodology and dismissed any claim that it discriminates against minority students. It remains unclear whether there is a difference in the median SAT scores of various ethnic groups at Princeton.
George, a former presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, said that the complaint deserves attention because of the new questions it raises about racial preference in higher education.
He noted that the complaint comes at a time of change at the nation's highest court, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's recent retirement and the appointment of the more conservative Alito. O'Connor's votes, siding with the liberal justices in one case, were crucial in maintaining the constitutionality of informal racial preference policies while rejecting formal systems.
One of the "things to keep your eye on," George said, is "how would the courts interpret the Michigan Law School decision, beginning with the lower courts, but then going all the way to the Supreme Court, where the complaining student is himself a member of a minority group, only an allegedly non-underrepresented minority group."
"Will the Supreme Court, with Justice O'Connor leaving and Justice Alito coming on, uphold or reaffirm the Michigan Law School decision or overturn it?" he asked, referring to the case in which the court upheld an informal racial preference system.
Reaction at Princeton
Princeton students from Li's high school, Livingston High School, in Livingston, N.J., argued that the complaint was unnecessary.
"I think it's absolutely ludicrous, considering that in the past few years the people that my high school has sent to Princeton are 50 percent Asian," Chen Zhang '08 said. "I think it's ridiculous."
Angela Wu '10, one of Li's high school classmates who read the Journal story over the weekend, agreed. "I think it's completely unwarranted," she said.
Li and Wu both emigrated from China to the United States when they were four and attended the same high school. While Wu was admitted to the University, however, Li was not.
"You could basically replace my name in the sentence, and I did come to Princeton," Wu said. "That's what really struck me when I read it."
Carra Glatt '09, who also attended high school with Li, said he contacted her over the summer as he was collecting GPA and SAT scores from fellow high school students. Li told her that he intended to use the information to show discrimination had taken place, but Glatt refused to provide the data.
"I felt like it just played into the idea that all that mattered in the process was SAT scores and GPAs, and I felt that that wasn't accurate in my case," Glatt said. "I didn't want to perpetuate that idea."
Glatt said that while she understands Li's concerns, she disagrees with his reasoning. "I think the approach he is taking to assume that he is entitled to admission to a particular school is inherently flawed. I don't think on an individual level he was discriminated against."
Lead-up to the complaint
Li's decision to file a complaint against Princeton instead of the five other universities that rejected him was "kind of arbitrary," he said.
"I think that this kind of discrimination pervades all elite universities so I just chose one as a test case thinking if something comes of it, it will send a message for all the universities," he said.
He also came closer to admittance to Princeton than some of the other universities he was rejected from. "Princeton was one of the ones who waitlisted me so I was pretty close — I was on the cusp. Even if race played a marginal effect in my decision it would have done something," he said.
Also influencing his decision was the 2004 Princeton study conducted by sociology professor Thomas Espenshade and statistical programmer and data archivist Chang Chung.
The article, published in the journal Social Science Quarterly and based on applications over three years to "three highly selective private research universities," concluded that Asian-Americans suffer the most from affirmative action.
Abolishing the system would decrease the percentage of admitted Hispanics and African-Americans, have relatively little effect on the percentage of white students admitted and would increase the number of Asian-American students admitted by a third, making it to 23 percent from 18 percent.
Espenshade was unavailable for an interview yesterday but said in an email that "academic merit is only one kind of merit that elite college admission officers consider when deciding whom to accept."
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is currently reviewing the information provided by Princeton. If the parties decide not to resolve their differences and the government finds that there is sufficient evidence that the law has been violated, "OCR will negotiate with the institution to reach a voluntary agreement that settles the complaint," according to the group's website.
If the office rules in Li's favor, he can request monetary damages, George said. "But I suspect that the more likely remedy in a case like this would be an injunction requiring the admission of the student who had successfully sued."
The University can also be required to revise its policy to prevent this type of discrimination, George added.
"Theoretically, affirmative action is supposed to take spots away from white applicants and redistribute them to underrepresented minorities," Li said. "What's happening is one segment of the minority population is losing places to another segment of minorities, namely Asians to underrepresented minorities."