Skakel McCooey

As the Department of Justice investigates Yale’s and Harvard’s admissions policies for their alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants, Yale’s cultural centers hosted an event called “Facts Not Fiction: Affirmative Action, College Access, and Diversity.” The event “directly” addressed “pressing questions about how race and other factors play into college admissions,” according to its Facebook event page.

OiYan Poon, a professor at Colorado State University and director of the Race and Intersectional Students for Educational Equity Center, spoke about the history of affirmative action during the Wednesday night event in William L. Harkness Hall, which attracted roughly 20 attendees. She also led a mock admissions workshop, which gave those in attendance a chance to step into admissions officers’ shoes and decide the fates of imaginary students. The event was co-sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural, the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Native American Cultural Center, the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration and the Education Studies Program.

“The reason we decided to host this event jointly as the cultural centers is because we really felt that there needed to be a holistic conversation around admissions and recognizing that there is a lot of misinformation and a lot of myths that we grew up understanding about how affirmative action works as it relates to admissions,” said Asian American Cultural Center Dean Joliana Yee. “We really felt that … having our conversations across communities would really help hopefully spread a wider and accurate understanding of how this works.”

Poon was one of 531 scholars on college access, Asian-American studies and race who filed an amicus brief in favor of Harvard’s admissions practices last August. The brief draws upon the authors’ original research and knowledge relevant to the legal issues of the case, according to the Asian American Civil Rights website. It argues that Asian-American applicants benefit from Harvard’s whole-person review process and aims to explain “why [Students for Fair Admissions’] arguments are based on racial myths and stereotypes of Asian Americans.”

Students for Fair Admissions is currently suing Harvard alleging discriminatory admissions processes that hurt Asian-American applicants.

During her lecture, Poon highlighted that affirmative action’s legal backing started with the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, which outlawed racial quotas and provided a “diversity rationale” for college admissions — meaning that universities could not consider race in admissions as a way to remedy past inequalities but could do so to create a diverse community on their campuses. She mentioned several other Supreme Court cases that led to affirmative action in its current form, which allows for the diversity rationale and says race should be considered holistically in the admissions process. She went on to defend holistic review in the context of selective university admissions.

Poon shared her experiences interviewing 36 Asian-American activists across the country, some pro- and some anti-affirmative action. She said that she gathered answers to two questions: “What is affirmative action?” and “What would the ideal system look like?”

Poon said that 30 of the 36 participants thought that affirmative action involved race-based quotas, which pro-affirmative action activists said were justified and anti-affirmative action said were unfair. Thirty-three of the 36 activists described an ideal system as being one using class- and race-conscious holistic review, which is what affirmative action actually looks like in current practice, Poon told the audience.

“I was just like, ‘None of you have it right still!’” Poon said. “These are people who are organizing rallies across the country, they’re on the front lines of this policy debate. It was really shocking.”

After her lecture, Poon led a workshop that allowed participants to act as admissions officers deciding the fate of five potential applicants. After participants expressed difficulty choosing which of the five applicants with varied racial, socio-economic, athletic and class backgrounds to admit, Poon explained that it is much harder to see the reasons behind specific admissions decisions without direct experience in the admissions process.

She explained that when looking in from outside the process, it may be easy to see an admissions choice as discriminatory when in reality it is not.

“I thought that the idea of creating a workshop and reading realistic applications and then trying to judge the candidates was a very good way of approaching the matter,” said attendee Charlie Chen ’22. “You kind of see how for many people’s lives their race is intertwined with their experiences, so I guess it’d be very hard to ‘separate race from college admissions’ like some people say.”

Esther Reyes ’21, another attendee, said that learning the way the admissions process works and noticing how many people misunderstand it helped her understand why affirmative action is such a controversial topic. She added that “hearing an Asian woman” talk about a topic that is “big in the Asian-American community definitely illuminated a lot of things.”

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan declined to comment on both the ongoing Harvard lawsuit and the Yale investigation, but he did reaffirm his support for Yale’s holistic review process.

“Having not attended myself, I can’t comment on the specifics of the Wednesday event at the AACC,” he wrote in an email to the News. “[But] I will reaffirm the admissions committee’s commitment to giving every applicant to Yale College a comprehensive whole-person review, which treats every feature of an application as complementary, and none alone as determinative. Whole-person [holistic] review is the bedrock principle of Yale’s admissions process.”

The admission rate for Yale’s class of 2022 was 6.31 percent.

Skakel McCooey | skakel.mccooey@yale.edu 

Asha Prihar | asha.prihar@yale.edu