Another View of UC Admissions Norman Matloff University of California at Davis Asian Week, July 27, 1990
In the June 8 issue of Asian Week, Arthur Hu wrote one of apparently several articles about Univerfsity of California admissions procedures. He presented some statistics which he believed demonstrated discriminatory practice against Asian American applicants, and made a number of remarks about admissions generally, including affirmative action aspects.
Hu's analysis is well-intentioned but in my opinion misleading. To be fair, I should state at the outset that my remarks might be affected, positively or negatively, by the fact that I speak: as a UC faculty member (computer science, UC Davis); as an admissions officer (graduate program in computer science, UCD); as a former professional statistician; and as someone with strong connections to the Asian American community (I am married to a Chinese American, I am a former ESL teacher in SF Chinatown, etc.).
Hu's statistical analysis, both here and in his other writings, usually centers around raw admissions rates, with statements such as "m percent of the applicants in Group X were admitted, yet only n percent of the Group Y applicants were admitted." This simplistic analysis is very misleading, since it does not take into account the fact that Group X and Group Y can have very different characteristics.
This type of reasoning is particularly misleading when dealing with the Asian American applicants, and comparing them to the Caucasians. For example, Asian American applicants tend to apply in greater numbers than Caucasians to highly selective majors such as engineering; this would produce a differential in admissions rates even if the two groups were exactly equal in grades, SATs, etc., and if ethnicity were not clear from the application form. Also, as a group Asian American applicants tend to be more prestige-conscious, and thus more apt to apply to a selective school if even their qualifications are far too low for that school. There are a number of other differences, such as communications skills (which are extremely important to university faculty, yes, including those in non-humanities areas such as engineering).
Hu also talks about admissions based on purely "academic" factors, presumably meaning high school grades and SAT scores. These numbers definitely are meaningful, but only as loose approximations. I have had students with strong numerics from nationally known high schools such as San Francisco's Lowell who did only mediocre work in their university courses, and students whose application files looked unimpressive but who turned out to be top students at the university level. In fact, the Educational Testing Service, the company which produces the SAT, issues strong admonishments that scores should not be overused in admissions procedures.
Hu seems to view admission to UC Berkeley as some sort of "prize," a "reward" for winning some kind of contest. Well, university admissions just don't work out that way---nor should they! It is not at all like a 100-meter dash, in which the gold medal goes to someone who is 0.1 second faster than the other speedsters. As pointed out above, academic potential is not measurable by some one-dimensional quality such as is the case in track meets. The university's only goal in admissions is to develop a diverse set of students who are intellectually commensurate with the level of instruction provided at that school.
The latter point is especially relevant to Hu's points on affirmative action. It is the university's position, and my own personal one, that the entire society benefits from having a diverse student body. It is vital that different groups have a chance to interact and understand each other. The Ivy League schools have been doing this for years, in a geographical sense, striving to develop a student body drawn from many different areas of the country. It does indeed make sense to do this for underrepresented ethnic groups as well.
Again, I wish to stress here that one must make sure that striving for diversity in admissions does not result in admitting students whose academic potential is not commensurate with the level of instruction offered at that university. Similarly, we must be vigilant that admissions policies which claim to be motivated by a desire for diversity are not actually masks for racial hatred. But if carefully implemented, we all benefit from a diverse student body. And note, by the way, that even Asian Americans are still considered underrepresented in some departments at UC, and thus are included in affirmative action programs in many cases.
I wish to make it very clear that UC, just like any other large institution, is not free of racism. I personally know of some individual faculty and administrators who have some unhealthy attitudes. I also happen to believe that some UC officials have handled admissions matters in a rather insensitive way. But I do claim that on the whole UC faculty and administrators have excellent attitudes toward Asian Americans, and that UC's admissions policiies have not been discriminatory toward that group or others.
Finally, I urge that allegations of discrimination be treated quite cautiously. As I mentioned earlier, we must be aware of casual, superficial statistical analyses, which can easily mislead. And as much as possible, we should avoid being swayed by emotions.
An excellent example of this occurred recently when a Chinese American faculty colleague of mine claimed that he had "proof" that UCB was discriminating against Asian applicants, citing the fact that two of his cousins had applied to UCB, with the "better" one being rejected and the "weaker" one being accepted. I responded by pointing out that both of his cousins were Chinese Americans, so his example says nothing about discrimination against Asians at all. He saw my point and withdrew his example, but his original offering of this "proof" shows how one's emotions can completely obliterate one's capacity for careful reasoning. Clearly, we must try out best to avoid this.
Norman Matloff teaches at the University of California at Davis.