When Being Best Isn’t Good Enough : Why Yat-pang Au Won’t Be Going to Berkeley

<i> Linda Mathews is a Times assistant foreign editor, and a former correspondent in Hong Kong and Beijing. </i>

YAT-PANGAU’S HIGH SCHOOL career was, by most measures, triumphant. He graduated first in his class of 432 at San Jose’s Gunderson High School with a straight-A average, ran a Junior Achievement compa ny, took home prizes from the countywide science fair, lettered in cross-country and track and was elected a justice on the school’s Supreme Court.

At the school’s honors assembly in May, Yat-pang was summoned so frequently to the stage to accept medals and trophies and certificates that he began to duck his head and smile self-consciously whenever his name was called: winner of seven scholarships, including ones from the National Society of Professional Engineers and from Junior Achievement; Bank of America laboratory science laureate; runner-up as Santa Clara County’s Young Businessman of the Year.

Teachers and counselors sang his praises. Robert McPeek, a vice principal, later called the lanky 18-year-old “one of the finest students I’ve ever encountered and a real gentleman, too.”


Teachers’ pets are often detested by other students, but not Yat-pang. Not only was he elected to student body and club offices, but he was, in his mother’s words, a “social animal” who spent too much time chatting on the phone and squired his friend and co-valedictorian, Lisa Hirai, to the senior prom.

And yet one goal, the honor he had most coveted to cap his high school years, eluded Yat-pang: He was rejected by the University of California at Berkeley. At least 10 other students from Gunderson High will be entering Berkeley as freshmen this fall, but not Yat-pang.

Yat-pang was so stunned by the rejection letter from Berkeley that he can still remember, in detail, the February afternoon it arrived. “I read it again and again, because I thought maybe I had misunderstood or that it wasn’t addressed to me,” he recalled. “I had my mind and my heart set on Berkeley. I’d thought about Berkeley for years; I’d worked hard in high school to get into Berkeley. I couldn’t believe I’d been turned down.”

Then he called his father, Sik-kee Au, a Berkeley alumnus who owns a small security-alarm business in the Silicon Valley. “I thought my son was joking,” said Sik-kee. “I couldn’t imagine how he could be rejected. Then I thought it was a mistake.”

Since then, both Yat-pang Au and his father have discovered there was no mistake. In the process, they have become embroiled in a fierce controversy that touches not only Berkeley but also the other campuses of the University of California and competitive universities across the country. The issue, say the Aus and other Asian-Americans, is whether institutions of higher learning have imposed quotas on Asian-American students, whether Asian-Americans are being kept out to preserve Caucasian majorities.

There may be a parallel between what is happening to Asian-Americans now and what happened to Jews in the 1920s and 1930s at some Ivy League schools. As the historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “the bright . . . Jewish lads from the Boston public schools” became so successful at gaining entrance to Harvard and other institutions that administrators began to complain of what was discreetly called “the Jewish problem.” To keep a lid on the number of Jewish students--denounced as “damned curve raisers” by less-talented classmates--the universities imposed quotas, sometimes overt, sometimes covert. As Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell solemnly explained, admitting too many Jews might have inspired further anti-Semitism.

Today’s “damned curve raisers” are Asian-Americans, who are winning academic prizes and qualifying for prestigious universities in numbers all out of proportion to their percentage of the population. And, like Jews before them, the members of the new model minority contend that they have begun to bump up against artificial barriers to their advancement.

CASUAL INSPECTION OF the Berkeley campus, 60 miles away from the Aus’ home, makes any suggestion of anti-Asian bias seem implausible. Asians represent 6.7% of California’s population, but they account for 25.5% of the Berkeley student body. In Sproul Hall, a visitor can eavesdrop on conversations in three Chinese dialects as well as Vietnamese, Korean and Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines. The fast-food shops on Telegraph Avenue, outside the university’s main gate, sell not only hamburgers but sushi and bulgogi and soba noodles. If anything, Asian-Americans seem overrepresented.

But, to those challenging the fairness of the university’s admissions system, the numbers are misleading; the percentage of Asians in the student body might be even higher, the critics contend, if admissions were still based strictly on merit. Since the mid-1970s, both Americans of Asian descent and immigrants from Asia have so outperformed Caucasian, black and Latino students in high schools that universities have manipulated admissions criteria to hold back the Asian influx, say the critics.

“As soon as the percentages of Asian students began reaching double digits at some universities, suddenly a red light went on,” said Ling-Chi Wang, a peppery Chinese-born professor of ethnic studies at Berkeley and one of the university’s severest critics. “Since then, Asian-American admissions rates have either stabilized or declined. . . . I don’t want to say there’s a conspiracy, but university officials see the prevalence of Asians as a problem, and they have begun to look for ways to slow down Asian-American admissions. Are they scared of Berkeley’s becoming an Asian university? They’re shaking in their socks.”

“Berkeley’s own projections a few years ago suggested that, before long, Asians were going to constitute at least 30% of the student body,” said Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a San Francisco-based civil rights group. “That realization caused uneasiness, a sense that the university might lose some of its support in white communities. That’s why the university has instituted practices to put a lid on the number of Asians.”

“Asian-Americans, in essence, have become victims of their own academic success,” declared Don T. Nakanishi, an assistant professor of education at UCLA. “They’re viewed as a threat. We now have university administrators worrying about Caucasians becoming ‘underrepresented’ and about how to curb the decline of white students in the UC system.”

UC President David P. Gardner stirred up a storm last December when, in an interview with the San Diego Union, he expressed concern that “the overrepresentation” of Asian-Americans in the UC system made it difficult to increase black and Latino enrollment and might cause unrest among other racial groups, including whites. Later, in a meeting with angry Asian-American leaders, Gardner said his remarks had been misinterpreted and promised that all qualified students would be accommodated somewhere in the UC system.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ken M. Kawaichi, co-chairman of the Asian-American task force that has led the challenge to Berkeley’s admissions system, was among those who met with Gardner. Unconvinced by the UC president’s explanations, Kawaichi speculated recently that “administrators and admissions officers have some idealized picture of what a university campus should look like. It should be predominantly white, maybe 70%, with a sprinkling of Asians and as many blacks and Hispanics as can be found.”

BUD TRAVERS, SITTING in his high-ceilinged office in Berkeley’s Sproul Hall, was having trouble controlling his temper as a reporter reeled off a litany of Asian-American complaints against the university.

“I am exasperated that I’m constantly responding to criticism of this kind, to wild charges that are never backed up with facts,” said Travers, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs on the Berkeley campus. “Instead we should be applauded for our success. We have more Asian-American students at this campus than at any other university in the country except the University of Hawaii at Manoa. And we never get any credit for it.”

Travers, a former intercollegiate tennis champion, has been Berkeley’s point man in the battle over Asian-American admissions. He has drafted countless reports in response to Asian-American organizations, dug through vast computer printouts to find the statistics to explain the university’s position, met with disappointed applicants and their angry parents. And he’s a little weary of it all.

“We have a real success story here,” said Travers. “Our Asian-American students . . . do everything: Eight of our student senators are Asians, the No. 1 player on the women’s tennis team is Asian, the co-president of the graduate student government is Asian, as are many of the debaters on our national champion team. It is ridiculous to suggest that Asian-Americans are denied opportunities here.”

W. M. Laetsch, vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs and Travers’ boss, is even more emphatic. “There have never been quotas here; there will never be quotas here,” he said. “We get hammered mercilessly on this when we’re doing better than anyone else in the country. It’s so ludicrous that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Laetsch noted that the proportion of whites in Berkeley’s student population has fallen from 68.1% in 1975 to 55% in 1986, “so if there is a conspiracy to perpetuate white control, we’re not doing very well.” In the same period, Asian enrollment has jumped from 16.8% of the total to 25.5%, black from 4.1% to 5.5% and Latino from 3.2% to 7.8%. “You could make a case that it is whites who are underrepresented, but we very rarely get complaints from white parents or white students,” said Travers.

Yet the controversy will not go away. Yat-pang and his parents, as well as several other Asian-American families, have complained to the U.S. Justice Department, claiming that the UC admissions system discriminates against them. Nathaniel Douglas, an official with the department’s civil rights division, said the charges are being investigated but no decision has been made on whether to file a formal complaint against the university.

The state Legislature also has been drawn into the debate. At the request of California Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti, the state auditor’s office is reviewing several years’ worth of university applications as well as a report on Asian-American admissions released by Travers’ office last January. The Assembly Subcommittee on Higher Education has held hearings on the issue.

SIK-KEEAU AND HIS WIFE, Mandy, don’t need reports and studies to confirm their gut feelings that their son was rejected because of his race. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” said Mandy, 41, whose life revolves around the family business and her five thriving sons. “I appealed after Yat-pang’s rejection letter came, and I was told, ‘Your son is good but he’s not good enough.’ Yet we know of other students, with lower test scores and grades, who were admitted to Berkeley.”

Mandy is, like her husband, an immigrant from Hong Kong who was educated in the United States and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. “We’ve felt discrimination before,” she said, “but I really hate to see it affecting education. Education is special; every child should have an equal chance. I worry not only about my children but other people’s children.”

The Aus say anti-Asian sentiment lies submerged not very far below the surface of California life. The family has been made to feel unwelcome in their posh neighborhood of brand-new houses, on expansive and lushly landscaped lots, that sell for $500,000 and up. “People have come by and yelled, ‘Chinaman, go home,’ ” said Sik-kee, 45.

And then there was the terrifying incident one morning in May, when, just before dawn, someone hurled a large stone Chinese lion from the Aus’ front porch through the leaded glass window of their living room. “At first I thought it was random violence,” said Sik-kee. “Then I began to think, ‘Why did they choose the stone lion instead of a brick or a stone?’ Maybe it was an anti-Asian gesture.”

The vandalism, which prompted Mandy to buy a gun and take shooting lessons, happened just after the San Francisco press reported Yat-pang’s complaint against Berkeley. The Aus summoned the Los Gatos police, but the officers, Sik-kee said in disgust, “didn’t seem interested. They didn’t even take fingerprints.”

Yat-pang is less certain than his parents that Berkeley has discriminated against him. “I am keeping an open mind,” he said, with the easy confidence that makes him seem older than 18. “Berkeley has promised to let me and my parents look at the records of people who were admitted. I felt my scores and grade point average qualified me for Berkeley, but maybe other people were better.”

His father glanced at him sharply and said, “Don’t blame yourself.”

ASIAN-AMERICAN ORGANIZATIONS focus their complaints on the growing reliance, particularly at Berkeley and UCLA, on subjective admissions criteria and the greater latitude given admissions officers. Such groups say that it is no coincidence that the two campuses have begun to emphasize such intangibles as the applicant’s extracurricular activities and his character as the number of Asian-American applicants has mounted.

“In the 1960s, admission to UC was based on high school grade point averages,” explained Der of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “In the 1970s, UC began to take into consideration SAT scores. We could live with that. . . . But, in the 1980s, we’ve seen UC start paying attention to so-called supplemental criteria, which means subjective criteria. That change works to the detriment of Asian-American applicants, so it’s very valid to raise the question of whether admissions criteria are being manipulated to keep our numbers down.”

Asian-American students often lead their high school classes and, nationally, score higher than whites on the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, though below whites on the verbal part of the test. So, under a system that emphasizes these quantifiable matters, Asian-Americans do well. But such students, especially immigrants, come from homes that emphasize school work over extracurricular activities, or they hold down part-time jobs that preclude such activities; when the intangibles are added to the admissions equation, say Berkeley’s critics, the Asian-Americans suffer.

Der, a founder of the Asian-American Task Force on University Admissions, noted that over the past three years, the Berkeley admissions office has systematically de-emphasized objective admissions criteria.

Sixty percent of the freshman class that entered Berkeley in the fall of 1985 were admitted on the basis of what Berkeley calls its Academic Index--a formula that calls for the applicant’s high school grade point average to be multiplied by 1,000, then added to the sum of his scores on the verbal and math portions of the SAT and his scores on three College Board Achievement tests. The maximum score on each test is 800, so the maximum Academic Index is 8,000.

For the class that entered Berkeley in 1986, the portion admitted on the basis of the Academic Index was slashed to 50%. Of this fall’s freshmen, only 40% were judged by their Academic Index scores. Of the remainder, 30% will be athletes, or blacks, Latinos and American Indians admitted under affirmative action programs, or those with special talents and interests. The other 30% were selected by weighing supplemental criteria, ranging from such subjective matters as their character, as revealed by their application essays, to such open-and-shut matters as to whether they had studied four years of foreign language.

The trouble with this new admissions system, said Der, is that “it gives the university a tremendous amount of latitude.” He and the task force, chaired by Judge Kawaichi and Judge Lillian K. Sing of the San Francisco Municipal Court, also object that the criteria have been changed yearly, without advance notice to the state’s high school students and without consulting Asian-American students, professors or civil rights organizations.

“If the university as a public institution is to fulfill its long-held commitment to competitive academic excellence and equal opportunity . . . it cannot erect artificial barriers, which on the surface appear to be neutral and color-blind, but which in effect cause an adverse impact on otherwise highly qualified and motivated Asian-American students,” said a task force study of Berkeley. “Neither can the university continue to make admission policy decisions behind closed doors.”

Nonsense, retort Berkeley’s administrators; they say there is no proof that Asian-Americans fare badly when judged by subjective criteria and that, as the applicant pool has expanded in recent years, the looser criteria have become a necessity to make informed judgments among applicants.

“The usual complaint about the supplemental criteria was that we were going to admit a class of student body presidents,” said Travers, the assistant vice chancellor. “But we use the criteria not just to pick student leaders. We also give extra points to the kids who open up computer software businesses in their garages, or have to work after school in their parents’ grocery stores, or those who lost their parents and live with their grandparents. We see all those attributes as advantages, as adding to the diversity of the class.”

The supplemental criteria add “some necessary human element” to the admissions process, said Laetsch, the Berkeley vice chancellor and a biologist. “If we had a system based purely on the Academic Index, we’d get a very homogenous student body. And we’d be putting our faith in standardized tests whose value is often in dispute. We’d be rejecting some students whose test scores were only a few points lower than those who were admitted; the system would be based on very fine and meaningless gradations. Using the supplemental criteria, we think we get the better, more interesting students--not just the good test-takers.”

The task force leans heavily on statistics to make its case that Berkeley put the brake on Asian-American admissions. Through the 1970s, more than 70% of all applicants--Asians and whites alike--were admitted. But, as the Asian pool increased with the influx of immigrants in the early 1980s, admission rates for Asians began to drop below those for whites. By 1984, only 34.4% of Asian applicants were admitted, contrasted with 48.1% of whites, and the actual number of Asians on campus plummeted. That’s when the task force organized and demanded an explanation from the university.

The task force argued that, if anything, Asians should be admitted in larger proportions than whites. Only 15% of California’s white high school graduates even meet UC’s eligibility requirements, the task force said, contrasted with 26% of Asians--testimony to the higher grade point averages and test scores of Asians.

In the past year, the admission rates for Asians and whites have begun to converge. For the class entering Berkeley this fall, the Asian admission rate almost perfectly matched that of whites--30.1% of Asians versus 30.9% of whites.

Travers, the Berkeley assistant vice chancellor, insisted that the university made no attempt to fix the rates but task force members scoff. Wang, the Berkeley professor, says the university has clearly yielded to political pressure. “There is a greater awareness on the part of university officials that the Asian-American community isn’t going to put up with discrimination any more,” he said.

LAETSCH AND TRAVERS ATTRIBUTE much of the agony over Berkeley’s admissions process to the skyrocketing demand for places in the university’s 3,500-member freshman class. More than 21,000 high school seniors applied to Berkeley this past year, a record, and more than twice the number who applied just five years ago. About 7,000 were admitted, and university officials assume that about half of those will enroll in September.

Once Berkeley and UCLA were considered “safety schools,” where the state’s best high school seniors could count on being admitted even if they were rejected by Stanford, Pomona or an Ivy League school. Nearly everyone who met the university’s eligibility standard--based chiefly on finishing in the top 12.5% of a graduating class--knew he would be admitted.

“That’s just not true anymore,” said Laetsch. “Today we turn down people who would have been admitted easily 10 or even five years ago. . . . We turn down at least 2,000 kids each year with 4.0 grade point averages.”

Word of the sharply upgraded admissions standards at Berkeley and UCLA, the most sought after and most competitive UC campuses, is only just beginning to reach the public. “The kids know this, the teachers know, and the guidance counselors know,” said Rae Lee Siporin, director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. “But the mommies and daddies don’t. . . . Parents are shocked when I tell them, ‘Yes indeed, your kid can get rejected even with a 4.0.’ Asian-American kids with 4.0s get turned down, and so do Anglo kids with 4.0s.”

Admission to UCLA, where Asians will account for 27% of the freshmen expected to register this fall, has become more competitive than that at many elite private colleges. The average Asian student admitted to the College of Letters and Sciences comes with a 3.97 grade point average, and the average white student is just a step behind with a 3.91 average. SAT scores for both groups top 1,200.

Another pressure in the admissions process comes from 1974 state Legislature resolutions ordering the UC campuses to make the racial compositions of their student bodies match the racial compositions of each year’s high school graduating class. Despite a decade’s efforts, blacks and Latinos remain underrepresented in the UC system, so both Berkeley and UCLA have set aside a growing number of places in their freshmen classes for these minority groups; that means that , under affirmative action programs, both campuses accept minority students who do not meet ordinary eligibility standards.

At Berkeley, the number of members of these minorities has leaped from 285 in the 1975 freshman class to 728 in the class that entered last September. UCLA has done even better; more than 25% of last year’s freshmen were members of these minority groups.

It is inevitable, say UC administrators, that as the number of blacks and Latinos is increased to meet the legislative mandate, the Asian and white populations on campus will be squeezed. “We have a limited pie,” said Thomas E. Lifka, assistant vice chancellor for student and academic services at UCLA. “Our enrollment cannot grow. So our problem is how to be as balanced and fair as we know how to be in meeting the needs of all our constituents. Not everyone is going to be satisfied.”

WHEN MANDY and Sik-kee Au began to probe Berkeley’s reasons for rejecting their eldest son, the university pulled no punches. Yat-pang, said Vice Chancellor Laetsch, “is a good but not an exceptional student.” His mistake, said Laetsch, was that he applied to Berkeley’s College of Engineering, which “turns down hundreds of students just like him.” Yat-pang made it even more difficult for himself by pursuing a spot in a specialized double major--electrical engineering, and computer and material sciences--that admitted only 31 of 184 applicants.

“You play in that sandbox, you have to understand you’re taking a chance,” said Laetsch.

The College of Engineering, following standard university practice, selected the top 40% of its Class of ’91 on the basis of the Academic Index; the cutoff for that group was 7,550 points. Yat-pang, whose SAT scores were solid but not as outstanding as his grades, had an Academic Index of 7,210: 4,000 for his perfect grade point average, 620 on the verbal SAT, 720 on the math, as well as 700 on the advanced math achievement test, 620 on the physics and 550 on the English composition.

Even if he couldn’t make it on academic credentials alone, Yat-pang felt he should have been admitted once more subjective criteria were considered. “I am not a nerd,” he declared, and his mother backed him up, saying, “Many Asian students have reputations as bookworms, but not Yat-pang.”

In high school, Yat-pang ran the Math and Science Clubs, dominated science fairs and joined the Academic Decathlon team, the activities usually associated with valedictorians. But he also ventured beyond these brainy pursuits--running track, teaching economics to fifth-graders in a special program, showing such profits for his Junior Achievement company that he was a finalist for Santa Clara County’s Young Businessman of the Year award. Although he intends to study engineering at DeAnza Community College this fall, Yat-pang yearns to be a businessman or, more precisely, an entrepreneur.

For years, he’s had a taste of business at his father’s firm, where all the Au sons work part time. Like the others, Yat-pang started out cleaning up the shop and assembling circuits. Since then, he’s become the company’s crack technician and installer, going on jobs as far away as Florida. In his spare time, he has written a software manual for the computer-run alarm system used by, among other clients of Au Electric, Los Angeles City Hall.

Yat-pang shows no signs of teen-age surliness. Like a dutiful Chinese son, he has always accepted the rules laid down by his parents: No television unless they’re home to supervise. Everyone must appear on time for dinner. And, in the absence of the parents, the younger brothers--aged 12 to 17--must obey Yat-pang. “I tell the others that, even if they think Yat-pang is wrong, they must do as he says until I come home,” said Sik-kee. “Then they can complain to me.” Asked whether her eldest has any faults, Mandy thought for a while and said, “Sometimes he talks too long on the phone.”

Perhaps because he has always played by the rules, racked up one semester after another of straight A’s, Yat-pang says he sometimes has trouble understanding why he failed to achieve the single most important goal he ever set for himself. “I wonder what I should have done differently,” he said. He plans to try to transfer to Berkeley after two years at DeAnza, whose engineering program is said to be very good. “The important thing, I guess, is not to be discouraged by what has happened so far,” he concluded.

PLENTY OF OTHER ASIAN-AMERICAN kids are discouraged, however. “Of course, they’re upset when they work their heads off, finish first or second in the class and then are rejected by Berkeley or UCLA,” said Karen Chang Eubanks, college adviser at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. “It’s especially hard if they turn around and see someone from our school with a 2.69 grade point average and much lower scores admitted because he’s Hispanic. I favor affirmative action, but I don’t know how the UC system can make a rational distinction between Asian kids and Hispanic kids at a school like ours. They all come out of the same neighborhood; they’re all equally disadvantaged.”

Other educators are also concerned that race has become an entrenched part of university admissions. “I buy the argument that universities should have diverse student bodies,” said John H. Bunzel, a former president of San Jose State University and a former member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. “The problem is that when race becomes a factor in admissions, too often it becomes the determining factor. What’s the real difference between a middle-class black student and a middle-class white student? Or a middle-class white student and a middle-class Asian? Perhaps it makes sense, for the sake of diversity, to make sure the poor and disadvantaged are represented. But we ought to move away from race-conscious admissions policies.”

UC administrators call Bunzel’s ideas noble if impractical for a university like theirs, still struggling to meet the affirmative action guidelines set by the Legislature. “Everyone would like to get to the point where admissions can be truly race-blind, where affirmative action isn’t needed,” said Laetsch of Berkeley, just a bit wistfully. “But that’s a long way off.”

Rae Lee Siporin, UCLA’s admissions director, says she, too, has fantasies about eliminating all racial considerations from admissions. “I was feeling perverse one day, and I said, let’s take the names off all our computer printouts and just use numbers to identify students,” she recalled. “That way, we wouldn’t know who was Asian and who was white. Problem is, it would be just my luck that our admission rate for Asians would drop 10% that year--and how would I ever explain that?”