A Parody Raises Questions of Bias in Admissions
By Karen W. Arenson
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Belda Chan, a senior at Princeton University, was stunned when she encountered an article in broken English in the annual joke issue of the student daily parodying an Asian-American student who had filed a civil rights complaint against Princeton.
“The editor in chief said their intention was to spark a dialogue on race,” said Ms. Chan, a history major from Massachusetts whose parents immigrated from China. “Obviously that’s happened. But hate crimes spark dialogue too, and that doesn’t mean they are good things and that we approve of them and that they will help in the long run.”
Perhaps even more than the complaint by Jian Li that he was rejected for admission by Princeton because of his race, the article published last Wednesday has put front and center the question of whether elite universities treat Asian-American students fairly in admissions and whether those students who are admitted face bias.
“Hi Princeton! Remember me?” the parody began. “I so good at math and science. Perfect 2400 SAT score. Ring bells? Just in cases, let me refresh your memories. I the super smart Asian. Princeton the super dumb college, not accept me.” Later, it said: “What is wrong with you no color people? Yellow people make the world go round. We cook greasy food, wash your clothes and let you copy our homework.”
Students, faculty and college administrators have condemned the article. The newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, printed an editors’ note expressing regret for upsetting readers and saying that a diverse group, “including several Asians on our senior editorial staff,” had written the column.
“We embraced racist language in order to strangle it,” the note said. “At its worst, the column was a bad joke; at its best, it provoked serious thought about issues of race, fairness and diversity.”
Chanakya Sethi, the Princetonian’s editor in chief, who is of Indian descent, said staff members were trying to put the article behind them.
But the debate has not subsided. “The damage has been done, and we now all face the collective task of repairing our civil discourse and salvaging our university’s reputation,” said April Chou, chairwoman of the Asian-American Alumni Association of Princeton, in a statement published in the newspaper on Monday.
While Asian-Americans account for five percent of the population in the United States, they account for greater numbers at prestigious institutions like Harvard (18 percent), Stanford (24 percent), and the University of California at Berkeley (46 percent). At Princeton, they accounted for 13 percent of undergraduates last year, and make up 14 percent of the current freshman class.
But some critics, like Mr. Li, the applicant who brought the complaint against Princeton, contend that many colleges, even those with substantial numbers of Asian-American students, deliberately hold down the number of Asian-Americans and that they should have a greater presence given their performance in high school and on standardized tests.
Mr. Li, a freshman at Yale, had a perfect 2400 on the SATs, top grades at his high school in Livingston, N.J., numerous Advanced Placement courses, community service in Costa Rica, and high rankings in New Jersey’s math and physics leagues.
He said in an interview that the experience with the civil rights complaint, filed with the United States Department of Education in August, had been “stressful.” He said he had drawn some ridicule, including the column, which he called “insensitive” and “extremely distasteful.”
But he said he felt his efforts were paying off, by bringing attention to the issue. He has been invited to speak about affirmative action and at events for Asian-American students. And he heard from two students at Brown University who would like to start a national campus movement to battle discrimination against Asian-Americans. Princeton says it does not discriminate.
Some of its students say they are anguished that the newspaper parody reinforces outdated images of the campus, which long ago had a reputation for anti-Semitism.
Bryan N. Bunch, a sophomore from Atlanta, said: “I know there are many stereotypes about Princeton. Elitist, racist, insular are but a few. Maybe in the past they were,” he added. “But today Princeton is genuinely an incredibly diverse place. I have friends from Korea, Africa, California and nearly everywhere in between.”
“How is an outsider to know of Princeton as an accepting place when school writers seemingly indict Asians?” he asked. “It honestly saddens me that students won’t apply or won’t matriculate because of misinformed thoughts.”
Jessica Wey, a senior from Michigan who is studying molecular biology and neuroscience, said she attended a Princeton conference in the fall at which minority alumni, including an Asian-American alumnus who graduated more than 60 years ago, talked about their experiences.
“It was incredible to hear what Asians earlier had to struggle with,” said Ms. Wey, whose parents are from Taiwan.
“And in comparison,” she added, “we seem to have it easy, superficially. There has been great progress. Still, Princeton still has a very white feel to it that steers Asians away.”
She said she has talked to potential students who have chosen not to attend for that reason. But she said such problems were more perception than reality.
Still, there were those who took the column in stride. Felix Huang, a Princeton senior from Texas majoring in chemical engineering, said he found it amusing. “If I had read the article 10 years ago, I would’ve been annoyed, defensive and angry,” he said, because he was “very sensitive about being Chinese.”
But now, he said, he feels that being Asian-American is a blessing, and he has “absolutely no defensive feelings about it since I know that any criticisms of being Asian-American simply have no merit.”
Chang-rae Lee, an author and creative writing professor at Princeton who immigrated to the United States from Korea at age three, said of the parody, “It certainly could have been funny, perhaps hilarious, and painfully so, had it smartly satirized and skewered all involved, while underscoring the very complicated issue of Asian-American admissions practices at elite colleges — real and perceived.”
He added, “Instead the piece employed the easiest, basest stereotypes of culture and character and voice for its sensational aims, offering little more than the most juvenile gloss on the issues.
“Frankly, the piece astounds me not so much for its racism as its stupidity,” he said.
University officials were scathing. Janet S. Dickerson, Princeton’s vice president for campus life, called the article “offensive,” adding, “the students exercised poor judgment in writing it.”
On Monday, The Princetonian carried a joint message from its top editors and the leaders of Princeton’s Asian-American Students Association, saying they were all “frustrated that this episode has led some to believe that Princeton is an unwelcoming place for Asian-American students.” They said such an impression is “not validated” by their own experiences.
They announced that they will co-sponsor a forum in the spring semester “for all community members to share their opinions” on the debate.