The head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said Wednesday that there are strong indications that elite universities discriminate against Asian-American applicants by giving racial preferences to black and Latino students.
Assistant Atty. Gen. William Bradford Reynolds advanced his viewpoint at a symposium on Asian-American university admissions sponsored by Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who called the matter "a provocative contention" that needs more study.
Other participants, including a Chinese-American student and representatives of the University of California and Brown University, challenged Reynolds' thesis and defended policies of favoring enrollment of racial minorities.
Reynolds, who called for early congressional hearings to put a national spotlight on college admission practices, said recent charges that elite universities have established quotas to limit the number of Asian-American students "do not appear to be wholly implausible."
He noted that the Education Department is investigating to see if Harvard University and UCLA discriminated against Asian-Americans applying for enrollment.
"At this stage, the extent to which the charges may have merit cannot be determined," Reynolds said. "Even so, we view the accusations as cause for legitimate concern."
He said that racial preferences for blacks and Latinos have been widely used by major universities, adding, "They are the most likely explanation of the alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans."
UC Berkeley rarely accepts white or Asian-American students without a high school grade-point average of 3.7 or 3.8, he said, while virtually all blacks, Latinos and American Indians who apply are admitted with a grade-point average as low as 2.78.
Even when Asian-Americans' admission rates are compared to those of whites, Reynolds added, "statistics again suggest that elite universities may be discriminating."
He said that admitting students to college solely on the basis of objective tests and grade averages would result in a far higher proportion of Asian-Americans than their percentage of the general population.
"But where admission policies are skewed by a mandate to achieve some sort of proportional representation by race, then, inevitably, there will be pressure to squeeze out Asian-Americans in order to make room for other minorities" or whites.
"In other words, the phenomenon of a 'ceiling' on Asian-American admissions is the inevitable result of the 'floor' that has been built for a variety of other, favored racial groups," Reynolds concluded. "Whether the exclusionary admissions process that is targeted against Asians is calculated to benefit blacks or whites, it is legally and morally wrong."
An investigation last year by the state auditor general on admissions policies at UC Berkeley found no clear-cut evidence of discrimination against Asians.
According to a UC spokesman, the ethnic breakdown of undergraduates at all UC campuses last year was: Anglos, 62%; Asians, 20%; Latinos, 9%; blacks, 5%, with the rest made up of other groups or undefined.
Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said it is time for "open competition, color-blind competition" in the college admissions process.
But Eric Widmer, dean of admissions at Brown, disputed Reynolds' contention that racial preferences should be dropped.
"It's inconceivable to me," Widmer said, "that one wouldn't want to take steps to increase opportunities for blacks and Hispanics to enroll and that requires affirmative action--it's not going to happen without it."
Even with these programs, he said, the percentage of blacks going to college is declining.
"Without our affirmative-action programs . . . we would lose a tremendous enrichment," said Alice C. Cox, assistant vice president for student services of the UC system.
Reynolds' view also was challenged by Grace Tsuang, a graduate student at Yale Law School who also was a panelist at the symposium.
Asian-Americans, she said, are not against affirmative-action programs for racial minorities but want to be treated as fairly as white applicants in the college admission process.
She said statistics from Harvard indicate that admission rates for students of Asian ancestry consistently have been four percentage points lower than the acceptance rate for whites.
Cox said about half of each freshman class in the UC system is chosen on the basis of objective tests and grade-point averages, while the remainder is selected on the basis of racial characteristics or other criteria.
"We believe our policies provide a desirable mix," she said, while acknowledging that UC Berkeley last year rejected the applications of 2,000 white and Asian-American students who had perfect 4.0 grade-point averages to carry out its admissions plan.
"By the year 2000, California will be a state with no majority group," Cox said.
In the last decade, she said, the admissions of whites to the University of California system have increased 11%, compared to 53% for blacks, 42.5% for Latinos, 136% for Asian-Americans and 455% for Filipinos.
Times education writer Larry Gordon in Los Angeles contributed to this story.