The Changing Face of Higher Education
A midday stroll through the nation’s most prominent public university is a good way to glimpse a campus cultural revolution in the making.
At UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, a premed student in a porkpie hat mans a recruiting table for the Cal snowboarding team. Opposite him, an earnest pair denounce premarital sex to anyone who’ll listen.
Sorority sisters and fraternity brothers hand out fliers for a dance. On the Mario Savio Steps, named for the 1964 Free Speech Movement leader, evangelical Christians praise the Lord, while a campus politician drums up support for affirmative action.
What is remarkable is not the differences among the students, but what they have in common: All are Asian Americans.
At Berkeley and many other top colleges, an Asian American enrollment explosion has staked an irrevocable place for a minority group in one of the most influential spheres of American culture.
The enrollment boom--fueled by years of increased immigration from Asia--has changed not only student life but also the stereotypical image of Asian students as nerds. Rising numbers mean that students with a wider range of interests and pursuits are enrolled, changing the tenor of some departments. Most undergraduate business students at Berkeley this fall will be of Asian descent.
Across the nation, academia is reacting to the boom. It has spawned humanities and social science classes on Asian American topics. Publishers are churning out books on Asian American subjects. And graduate students and faculty of Asian descent are heavily recruited by the most prestigious universities, presaging an even greater presence among the nation’s intellectual elite.
Though Asian Americans represent 6% of the college population, their influence is magnified by strong numbers in institutions that produce much of the scholarship that defines American identity, and where many future leaders form their views of self and society.
One in four undergraduates at Stanford and Wellesley are Asian Americans, as are roughly one in five at Harvard, Northwestern and the University of Pennsylvania.
Asian American undergraduates now largely define life at several University of California campuses, from student government to the social fabric. Unlike elite private colleges that recruit nationally, the UC system draws students mainly from California, home to nearly 40% of Asian Americans.
The majority of undergraduates at UC Irvine are Asian Americans, and they are the largest racial group among undergraduates at Berkeley, UCLA and UC Riverside.
Across the country, the changing face of elite universities was on display this spring as colleges courted prospective freshmen. Thai food was served at a Berkeley luncheon honoring finalists for highly competitive merit scholarships. Ivy League schools, including Princeton and Columbia, celebrated Asian Pacific heritage month with an array of speakers and performances.
Addressing parents and prospective students, Yale history professor Gaddis Smith joked that his fellow Smiths are outnumbered by Kims at the New Haven, Conn., campus. “My nomination for the single piece of legislation that has had the greatest effect on Yale is not the G.I. Bill, but the Immigration Act of 1965,” he said.
The law opened the country to many more Asians--including many educated immigrants intent on enrolling their children in top colleges--and eventually transformed student bodies.
Now some scholars predict that this generation of Asian American students could become the next minority group to profoundly shape American intellectual life. The wave of Jewish college students in the first half of the century generated thinkers who integrated European ideas into American letters, such as critics Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling. From the exponential rise in black enrollments at elite colleges in the late 1960s emerged some of today’s most prominent intellectuals, such as Harvard professors Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Some, maybe most of the very best students, are Asians,” said Stanley N. Katz, a Princeton historian. “These kids strike me as the Jews of the end of the century.”
Like earlier generations of Jewish students, however, Asian Americans have encountered divisive stereotypes and resentment over their academic success.
Overt racism has been rare, surfacing through incidents such as a 1996 case in which a UC Irvine student sent an e-mail death threat to 59 Asian Americans.
Less spectacular but possibly more significant conflicts arose in the 1980s. Reports of Asian American academic achievement often portrayed them as one-dimensional whiz kids, and naively speculated on their success.
“Confucian Work Ethic,” read one headline in Time magazine. People magazine linked scholastic success to “rare genetic gifts.”
While the media mulled Asian American braininess, students and civil rights activists accused several universities of bias. In the mid-to-late 1980s, studies of admissions at Brown, Stanford, Princeton and Harvard found that Asian Americans were admitted at lower rates than whites, despite having comparable or superior grades and test scores.
Administrators at the schools claimed that the disparity arose because Asian American applicants were concentrated in the sciences and were weaker in “personal qualities” such as extracurricular participation and alumni parentage.
Lawrence W. Levine, a George Mason University historian and author of a widely acclaimed history of American colleges, likens stereotypes and seemingly disparate treatment of Asian Americans to the prejudices that earlier in the century led to Jewish exclusion quotas at some Ivy League schools. “There are a lot of similarities,” he said. “They said Jews worked too hard and weren’t fair competitors.”
At Berkeley, complaints regarding Asian Americans prompted campus reviews and press scrutiny. In 1989, then-Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman--while not acknowledging discrimination--apologized publicly, saying Berkeley’s admissions policies “indisputably had a disproportionate impact on Asians.”
Berkeley as a Cultural Flashpoint
While other colleges and UC campuses have had dramatic transformations, few match Berkeley’s history of social change. It was the site of the 1969 Third World students strike, from which emerged some of the first Asian American studies courses.
In the nine years since Heyman’s apology, Asian American undergraduate enrollment has climbed from 27% to 40% and “old stereotypes have broken down,” said history professor David A. Hollinger.
Some faculty once feared that science-oriented Asian American students would erode interest in the humanities, he said. But as more Asian American students arrived, no one could “deny the radical individuality of these young people,” said Hollinger, a specialist in U.S. intellectual history.
Biology and electrical engineering remain the most popular majors for Asian Americans. Since 1983, however, as the percentage of Asian American undergraduates increased by 80%, the percentage of English majors has quadrupled. Asian Americans account for twice the share of the history, rhetoric and business majors that they did in 1983.
Nowadays, Hollinger said, Asian American students often “come into my office eager to talk about the expansion of NATO, school vouchers, the future of the Democratic Party. They’re engaging the same kinds of questions as earlier generations of Jewish and black intellectuals--public questions rather than pre-professional or technical ones,” he said.
African American novelist and poet Ishmael Reed, who teaches creative writing, said, “There was a time when my class was mostly white. Now, some of the best writers are Asian Americans, and many of them aren’t ashamed to write about their ethnicities.”
Asian Americans are engaged in every sphere of student life, including student publications, the student council, fraternities and sororities, sports teams and the cheerleading squad. They make up about 80% of members of more than 50 evangelical groups, according to a recent article in the Cal alumni magazine.
Today the Asian Business Assn., started 23 years ago to support Asian American students on a predominantly white campus, is so popular that President Tina H. Chen worries more about ensuring that no one else is excluded.
“All Majors and Ethnicities Welcome,” appears on fliers for the club’s career workshops. Two governing board members are white.
Sharon Yuan, who graduated this spring, said she and her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sisters are astonished by the old photographs on the walls of their house, which is racially mixed. Before the 1980s, she said, the sorority was nearly all white.
Yuan, who last year was the student government president, said student politics has evolved beyond ethnic bloc-voting. Next academic year, an African American will serve as president of the racially mixed student government.
Berkeley has become an Asian American collegiate mecca. Not only did it have a Chinese American chancellor, Chang Lin Tien, until last year, but its faculty includes luminaries such as novelist Bharati Mukherjee and chemistry Nobel laureate Yuan T. Lee.
Berkeley’s Asian American faculty is spread across disciplines and ideologies. Ethnic studies professor Ronald T. Takaki is one of Berkeley’s most visible defenders of affirmative action. John Yoo is a 30-year-old law professor and affirmative action critic who served as clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Maxine Hong Kingston, whose novel “The Woman Warrior” is one of the most widely taught contemporary American literature texts, said she and other Asian American professors at UC have become role models. “Not only Asian American students, but the entire academic community learn from--and that there are--intelligent, attractive, generous Asian Americans.”
Rising Asian American enrollment at elite colleges in the East, Midwest and South is “the aftermath, the logical outcome of the [1980s] battle over admissions,” said Robert G. Lee, a Brown University historian.
Since the 1980s, student demand for scholarship examining the place of Asian Americans in the United States has prompted “a huge body of work, much more than before,” said Cornell University historian Gary Y. Okihiro, co-editor of the new Journal of Asian American Studies.
Takaki’s history of Asian Americans, “Strangers From a Different Shore,” has sold more than 100,000 copies. “Twenty years ago the doors [to publishers] were closed to us; now they’ll offer you a contract just on the basis of an outline,” he said.
Takaki is heavily sought after on the academic lecture circuit. He has debated conservative Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a critic of multiculturalism.
At many schools, Asian American students are trying to revise and update the very idea of Americanness, a task that has absorbed thinkers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry James.
“We have to define our culture versus aspiring to someone else’s idea of American identity. Americanness is ever-changing,” said Zahir Janmohamed, 21, a UC political science major who graduated this spring.
A California-born Muslim of Indian ancestry, Janmohamed said he devoted much of his energy in college to challenging anti-Muslim prejudices.
He said he fought anti-Muslim bias directly by speaking up in class, and indirectly by simply pursuing a range of interests. Last school year, he and three friends (a Chinese American, a white and an African American) organized a student-taught course on the writings of linguist Noam Chomsky.
Asian Americans have kicked off a kind of academic snowball. With the increased enrollment, more and more Asian Americans are entering doctoral programs and teaching both in and out of Asian American fields.
Daniel Y. Kim, who joined the Brown University faculty last year after earning a doctorate at Berkeley, said that about 10 Asian Americans in his doctoral program now teach at such schools as Pennsylvania and Columbia.
Patricia Lin, who recently completed a history doctorate at Berkeley and is applying for teaching positions, is a specialist on the impact of war on British society. Lin, 28, traces her interest in the topic to growing up in New England, where her parents piqued her curiosity about war by telling her about living through World War II in Taiwan.
The most obvious curriculum change may be the increase in Asian and Asian American studies courses at many schools. About 40 colleges have such programs.
The curriculum typically includes humanities, fine arts and social sciences courses such as “Filipino American Literature,” or “Asian Americans and U.S. Foreign Policy.” On some campuses, the courses are popular among non-Asian students.
When schools have been reluctant to include or expand existing Asian or Asian American studies offerings, students have been willing to fight. Within the last three years, students staged sit-ins at Princeton and Columbia and a hunger strike at Northwestern.
Along with student demands, an interest in Asian and Asian American studies has been fueled by the broadened notions of American history and literature that grew out of the civil rights movement and Asia’s rising influence.
“There’s a growing awareness that undergraduate education has to be about more than European culture,” said Katz of Princeton. “The world is a smaller place, and America is less and less a white European nation.”
Elaine H. Kim, an Asian American literature specialist in Cal’s ethnic studies department, said that today’s academic climate is a sharp departure from her days as a student and junior faculty member. When she began teaching at UC in 1969, Kim recalls, “people in departments didn’t recognize that there was such a thing as Asian American literature. They barely recognized American literature.”
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Kim said, Asian American studies was “very cultural-nationalist. We had to show we weren’t a bunch of foreigners.”
With recognition no longer a primary issue, students and academics can pursue more complex and ambitious scholarship that ties Asian Americans to the whole of American experience.
David Palumbo-Liu, a Stanford literature professor, believes that all students benefit. “When I teach [Depression-era Filipino American novelist] Carlos Bulosan’s ‘America Is in the Heart’ along with ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ it broadens and enriches Steinbeck, and vice versa,” he said.
Levine, a past president of the Organization of American Historians who taught at Berkeley for more than 30 years, said new standards have moved scholarship beyond simply celebrating the achievements of minorities.
“When we first started doing history with a more inclusive focus, we talked about contributions. They contributed to the creation of America, but the American self retained an impervious European nature. The Chinese built the railroad, but the railroad served European economic [interests].”
Academics today, he said, seek to break down historical myths and examine the complexity of America evident in the faces of today’s students. “Now we talk about transformations. America is not a thing that gets added to, it is a process that changes as the groups that comprise it change.”
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Asian American Students
At the University of California, Asian Americans make up 41% of the undergraduates at UC Berkeley, 40% at UCLA, 58% at Irvine and 43% at Riverside. Here are percentages of Asian American students enrolled in universities around the nation:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 28%
New York University: 22%
Source: UC Berkeley Office of Student Research; the other universities.
Ethnic groups percentage of undergraduates
*Category includes international students, native Americans, Pacific Islanders and students who identified themselves as “other” or declined to state race.
Source: UC Berkeley Office of Student Research
About This Series
As California’s fastest-growing ethnic group, Asian Americans find greater numbers bring greater successes and greater problems.
Sunday: They are influencing everything from cuisine to commerce, while struggling to become fully vested in American life.
Monday: Teenagers face a double identity crisis--battling the usual conflicts of adolescence while defining themselves in two cultures.
Today: An Asian American enrollment boom is transforming the nation’s top universities.
Wednesday: In the corporate world, Asian Americans often stall in the middle ranks, but there are cracks in the glass ceiling.
WEDNESDAY: Cracks in the Glass Ceiling
The complete series will be available on The Times’ Web site beginning Wednesday. Go to: https://www.latimes.com/asian