Who knew that the topic of college admissions could be so contentious and so controversial? 

Come to think of it, for me, perhaps the bigger surprise over the last few weeks has been that so many people still believe in merit.

Who knew? You would think after all you’ve seen and lived through — the Little League coach’s kid getting to play third-base, the donor’s daughter being admitted to the private school despite poor grades, the athlete getting early admission at Princeton, the legacy being accepted at Harvard Law School, the co-worker who scored #3 on the exam getting the promotion, etc. — we wouldn’t be shocked to learn that not every aspect of the college admissions process is on the level? 

Of course, that’s putting it mildly. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston announced 50 indictments in an elaborate $25 million bribery case that involves allegations of mail and tax fraud, accusing wealthy parents of paying “enormous sums” to guarantee that their children would be admitted to elite universities, what was exposed was a sophisticated criminal enterprise that rivals the best efforts of Mexican drug traffickers.

The tentacles went everywhere. The ringmaster — William Rick Singer — pitched his Newport Beach-based consulting firm as the answer to the prayers of parents who wanted to give their kids a shot at the brass ring and who believed that getting them into a good college was the first step. Singer created what he called a “side door” centered around two aspects of the admissions process: preferential treatment for athletes and the emphasis on standardized tests. Prosecutors claim that Singer passed off non-athletes as athletic prospects and bribe exam administrators to allow ringers to take tests on applicants’ behalf. 

Parents and students are rightly outraged, if they were turned down or even if they were accepted. Lawsuits are flying with more of them sure to follow. Plaintiffs are demanding hundreds of millions of dollars either because the scheme kept them out of elite institutions — or because it supposedly diminished the value of their degrees from said institutions.

It’s a monster story, precisely because — unlike a national emergency declaration on the U.S.-Mexico border or a special counsel investigation into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 election — this is a scandal that everyday Americans can sink their teeth into. They understand it, and they’re disgusted by it. 

It’s been a tough time for the admissions process at elite colleges. If we ever had the impression that the whole ordeal was pure and honorable and driven by merit, most of us now know better. 

For instance, a few months ago, did you hear about how Harvard University is now going out of its way to actively discriminate against Asian-Americans?

If you missed that story, no worries. Because that far-fetched tale is not even a little bit true.

Rather, it’s an anti-diversity talking point being pushed those who have for decades fought attempts by various institutions to dole out positions of privilege more equitably by taking race, ethnicity and gender into account.

Enemies of affirmative action have come up with a crafty way to knock it down: use Asian-Americans as the battering ram. It’s an old cause with new — and highly cynical — wrapping.

Which brings us to a group that calls itself “Students for Fair Admissions.” It is now suing Harvard, claiming that the university discriminates against Asian-Americans. 

The case is currently in a U.S. district court in Boston, and a decision appears imminent. Ultimately, legal observers think that it’s final destination will be the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Meanwhile, the public is already weighing in. Outside the courthouse, protesters held signs that read: “Discrimination in the name of diversity is wrong.”

Here we go. “Discrimination” has become the catch-all, default term for anyone who doesn’t get everything they want out of life. These days, for example, a white male who wants a job and loses it to a woman will holler that he’s a victim of gender discrimination.  

And, mathematical realities being what they are, not everyone who wants to go to Harvard will be accepted. Currently, out of every 100 applicants, only five get in. 

The legal definition is stickier. It hinges narrowly on whether plaintiffs can show discriminatory intent or impact — usually because of a belief that whoever is allegedly being discriminated is inferior to the folks doing the discriminating.

So, however distasteful some Americans might find the practice of any college or university in America considering the race or ethnicity of applicants, that’s not the issue.  

There are only three questions that matter: Did Harvard intend to keep out Asian-Americans? Is that intent born of a belief that Asian-Americans are inferior to other groups? And did that intent have the effect of turning Harvard into an Asian-free zone?

No. No. No. 

As to question No. 1, if Harvard is conspiring to keep out Asian-Americans, it’s failing miserably. The Harvard current student body is — at present — about 22 percent Asian-American. 

As to question No. 2, not only does Harvard not appear to believe that Asian-Americans are inferior, the lawsuit assumes that Harvard thinks the opposite — that Asian-Americans are superior to other applicants to the point where it has to keep them out to avoid all of the seats being taken by Asian-Americans.  

And as to question No. 3, the fact that Harvard is now so heavily Asian-American torpedoes the argument that Asian-Americans are being kept out because of their race. 

So the plaintiffs have a new argument. Think of it as the “magic wand” test. What if we could wave a magic wand and turn an Asian-American applicant into an applicant of another color? 

Students for Fair Admissions claims that, while an Asian-American applicant has a 25 percent chance of admission, if that applicant were white, the percentage would be 35 percent. If he were Hispanic, it would soar to 75 percent. And if he were African-American, the chance of admission would be a whopping 95 percent. 

If those figures are accurate, it would seem that it is much more difficult for Asian-Americans to be admitted to Harvard — and many elite universities like it — than it is for white, African-American, or Latino applicants to make their way there.

But if you buy that argument, you must ignore a few things — like the fact that many more Asian-Americans apply to Harvard than, for example, African-Americans. Or the fact that you can’t just switch names and photographs on college applications, and look for similar outcomes. 

Behind the statistics on those forms are layers of personal experience, economic status, upbringing, home life, parental support. These aren’t spreadsheets. They’re lives.

You also have to accept the idea that Harvard makes its admissions decisions on academics alone. It does not. 

Harvard always skims the cream and it could fill up its entire class with class valedictorians with 4.0 GPAs if it wanted to. But speaking as one of those folks, how boring would that be? 

Besides, Harvard has decades worth of Supreme Court decisions on its side. The trend over the years has been to give colleges and universities wide berth to diversify their student body. 

Sure, there are rules. But Harvard doesn’t seem to have broken them. It toed the line but didn’t cross it. 

I could have told you that. You see, I’ve been to the show. In fact, I had a front-row seat. 

In the fall of 1985, I entered Harvard as one of 35 Mexican-Americans in a class of about 1,600 freshmen. There was a smaller number of Puerto-Ricans and Cuban-Americans, perhaps about 50 combined. There were slightly more African-Americans — around 90. And there about 250 Asian-Americans. Together, ethnic and racial minorities made up 25 percent of the total population of my freshman class. The lion’s share of seats — about 75 percent — were taken up by white people, the new oppressed class.

In my freshman class, three-fourths of the spots went to white people. But for some, that wasn’t enough. Today, the number is about half. And, for some, it’s definitely not enough. 

The critics of affirmative action still want the whole pie. And they’re counting on Asian-Americans to get it for them.

You see, fairness is a good thing to strive for. But so is something that has been missing from the plaintiff’s case and how the media has covered the proceedings. It’s called truth.

And speaking of truth, it’s screaming out to us from the college admissions scandal. What it is telling us, in no uncertain terms, is that while merit isn’t dead — it is on life support. 

The alleged scam was based on Singer opening up what he called a “side door” into selective schools — for those parents who didn’t have a couple million dollars to donate for a new library, or a whiz kid with the goods to get accepted on the natural. 

What Singer is accused of doing was illegal, and what the parents who built the library did may be immoral. 

But the whiz kid still has clean hands. He works hard, follows the rules, takes his own exams, gets good grades, and pays his dues. Merit isn’t dead for him. He’s all about merit.  

So much so that no one else in this drama wanted anything to do with competing with him for admission spots head-to-head — and fair and square. 


Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.” 

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