Don Nakanishi ’71 usually dreaded December 7. When he was growing up in East Los Angeles, some high school teacher would invariably mention the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Nakanishi would feel uncomfortably singled out when his classmates turned around in their desks to stare at him and the other Japanese-Americans in the classroom.
December 7, 1967 seemed different, however. A freshman at Yale, Nakanishi was having a relatively mundane day — classes in the morning, lab work in the afternoon, and a leisurely dinner — until a crowd of people stormed into his room around 9 p.m. Chanting “Pearl Harbor, Pearl Harbor,” Nakanishi’s classmates bombarded him with water balloons as he sat at his desk. After someone recited FDR’s “Declaration of War” completely from memory, the crowd yelled “Bomb Pearl Harbor!” and promptly left. Sitting there stunned and wet, Nakanishi did not know whether to laugh or cry — so he just cleaned up the mess instead.
The incident probably would not have happened had there been more minority students at Yale during the 60s, said Nakanishi, now the director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. Although racism was looked down upon, the lack of a substantial minority population contributed to insensitivity towards minorities, Nakanishi said.
“I felt [my minority status] the day I got there,” Nakanishi said. “My freshman class [at Yale] was touted as the most diverse class ever, and we had something like seven African American students, seven Latinos, and seven Asian Americans.”
Yale’s minority population has since grown substantially. Whereas the presence of minority students at Yale was almost insignificant during the first half of the 20th century, by autumn 1995, 33.7 percent of students — an all time high — were minorities, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research. In the last 20 years, the percentage of minority students at Yale, excluding international students, has almost doubled, rising from 16.9 percent in 1984 to 32 percent in 2004.
Especially notable are the strong gains made by Asian Americans and Hispanics, who have roughly doubled and tripled their presence on campus, respectively, since 1985. The African-American population has also increased in the last 20 years, although nowhere near the rate of the Asian American and Hispanic populations. The Native American presence has grown as well, but as of 2004, comprises less than one percent of the student population.
Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw said these gains can attributed to efforts by the Yale administration to foster diversity in incoming classes.
“The rise [in minority numbers] has to do with a commitment to recruiting all students from all walks of life and outreach to multicultural populations over time,” Shaw said.
In the last 10 years, however, minority enrollment seems to have plateaued. Falling 3.6 percent from its high of 33.7 in 1995, the percentage of minorities dropped to 30.1 percent in 2000 and has not yet returned to its 1995 level. In particular, the Asian American population dropped 3.1 percent from 1996 to 2002 and has risen only slightly since then. While the African American and Native American populations have remained relatively stable, the Hispanic population, bucking the trend, rose from 5.8 percent in 1993 to a high of 7.7 percent in 2004.
The increase in Yale’s Hispanic population stems from a new focus on education within Hispanic communities, said Gabriel Hernandez ’07, a Student Recruitment Committee officer.
“Latino families are putting a stronger value on education,” said Hernandez, who is active in La Casa Cultural and other Hispanic student groups. “They’re looking at Ivy League schools and all the East Coast institutions and applying … I can definitely speak for the mind-set within Latino communities: it has directly to do with part of [the] increase in ambition.”
As the Hispanic population rises nation-wide, Shaw said, enrollment at Yale will follow suit.
“We know where the demographic shifts are,” Shaw said. “The demographic shifts are pretty strong in California and the Southeast … and the largest growing population is actually Hispanic.”
As for the slight decline in Asian-American numbers, SRC officer Stephanie Teng ’06 said Asian-American students may be losing spots to other minorities. Teng said there is also speculation that Yale may be losing Asian-American students due to the University’s perceived weakness in the sciences or the Asian-American community’s preference for Harvard and Stanford, Teng said.
“There’s always this myth that Asians are moving out of the affirmative action race, because all the benefits for minorities are for Hispanics, Native-Americans, blacks,” said Teng, a former board member for the Chinese American Student’s Association. “That is a bad way for Asian Americans to think about it, but the reality is that so many kids are applying to Ivy League schools … in the whole push to diversify the student body … amongst the minority applicants, the Asian American seat is lost to other minorities.”
While Yale’s minority population stands at 32 percent, minorities make up 37 percent of Harvard and 31.4 percent of Princeton’s non-international undergraduate population. Harvard has more Asian-American students — 19.1 percent compared to Yale’s 14.9 — but has roughly the same percentage of other minorities. Princeton’s statistics also closely mirror those of Yale. Stanford has a much higher minority population — over 50 percent in 2004 — but that is in large part because Stanford draws more of its students from California, the most diverse state in the union, Shaw said.
Although Yale has a commitment to diversity, the admissions office does not actively aim for specific minority percentages, Shaw said.
“We don’t have quotas, we don’t have targets, we don’t have any objectives by race,” Shaw said. “We really just try to admit the strongest candidates in the context of where they are. We’re not putting out there some effort to reach some percentage or to mirror anything.”
Shaw would not give specifics on where he sees the minority population at Yale going in the next few decades, but said he hoped to keep the Yale undergraduate class reflective of national demographic trends. While the admissions office cannot possibly reach all corners of the nation, the office plans to use undergraduate student representatives to expand then University’s reach into high schools across the country, Shaw said.
In contrast to the current makeup of the student body, when English professor Lee Patterson ’62 came to Yale in 1958, the campus was overwhelmingly white and over half of the students came from East Coast boarding schools.
“There were certainly minorities here, and there were certainly Jewish kids, but it was not a visibly or experientially heterogeneous place,” Patterson said. “Unless you made an effort to get outside of your circle, you could get through Yale without meeting anyone who wasn’t basically like you. That wasn’t hard to do.”
Patterson said discrimination and general attitudes towards minorities were not big problems on campus. But since a significant minority population did not exist, racial issues rarely surfaced, he said.
In the middle of the 20th century, admissions worked differently than they do now. The president of Andover Academy in Massachusetts would simply hand a list of his students to the Yale dean of admissions, and those students would end up in New Haven, said professor emeritus and University historian Gaddis Smith.
Nevertheless, racism was not completely absent from the Yale campus.
“In 1958, I was a freshman. I was waiting in line in the Freshman Commons and there was an African American boy in line with us,” Patterson, who attended St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, said. “I was with one of my classmates from Georgia, and he said, ‘I can’t stay in this line, there’s a Negro in the line.’ And I was shocked. I’d never encountered anyone who felt that way.”
Smith said the number of minority students did not increase until the late 1960s, when admissions officers started recruiting students from large, urban public schools who had never sent anyone to Yale or other Ivy League institutions.
During this time the administration began actively fostering a more supportive environment for minorities. The early 1970s saw the creation of cultural centers, departments dedicated to ethnic studies and ethnic counselors, Nakanishi said.
“I think that the administration was very much aware that Yale lacked diversity,” Nakanishi said. “They were very much aware of the civil rights movement, urban riots, lots of things happening in higher education. We happened to be there at a time when the president of Yale … was very much committed to diversity and had an administration that was also committed to diversity.”
By the time Patterson came back to teach in 1994, the Yale campus had transformed, he said.
“It was totally different,” Patterson said. “It was unrecognizable. Thank heavens.”