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Meritocracy: the Yale Debate and Surname Analysis
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Meritocracy I just returned from attending a couple of events at Yale University, all in connection with the controversial issues raised by my Meritocracy article.

On Tuesday, I participated in a large public debate organized by the Yale Political Union on the somewhat related question of whether Affirmative Action on college admissions should be ended. The audience was narrowly divided on the question, and often loud and boisterous in expressing their sentiments, thus resulting in a lively evening, as reported in the Yale Daily News.

One of the most interesting moments came when a girl from the audience declared she was a Southern Baptist, and that she sometimes wondered whether she was nearly the only one at Yale. America contains some 16 million Southern Baptists, who constitute our nation’s largest Protestant group, so if Yale does indeed only enroll a negligible number of such individuals among its 5500 students, this might raise troubling questions of exactly how the university administrators define their vaunted public commitment to “diversity” and also the nature of their recruitment and admissions policies.

On Wednesday afternoon, I made an hour-long presentation at the Yale Law School, co-sponsored by the Asian-American Law Students Association and the Federalist Society, which drew a remarkable 100 students out of a total enrollment of around 600, filling one of the large lecture halls. In this instance, the research findings and proposals of my article were the central topic under examination, and the law students had many detailed and probing questions, producing a very useful discussion.

But for me, the true highlight of the visit came later that evening, when Amy Chua—of “Tiger Mom” fame—and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, both prominent law professors, hosted a small gathering at their home for faculty members and students, with the resulting discussion of the topics in my article and various other public policy issues continuing on for several hours. I’ve always greatly enjoyed such thoughtful discussions with extremely intelligent, knowledgeable people, and I afterward once again regretted my own late-1980s defection from the academic world.

 

One of the substantive issues raised by a couple of students during my law school presentation was the accuracy of my analysis of Jewish numbers, and this provides me with a perfect opportunity to discuss this issue. Surprisingly enough, it has not yet been the subject of any detailed published critique, but the matter is obviously crucial to important parts of my analysis.

First, as I indicated in my original text, the Asian numbers I presented were far more solid and reliable than the Jewish ones, and the latter figures inherently contain a great deal of uncertainty. After all, Asian university enrollments are directly reported by the universities themselves in official government-required statistics, while Asian names tend to be extremely distinctive and easy to determine in lists of academic high performers such as NMS semifinalists or Olympiad winners.

By contrast, the only real source of Jewish enrollment figures comes from the Hillel campus organization, and there are serious questions about how accurate or reliable their estimates tend to be. Meanwhile, a substantial fraction of American Jews have non-distinctive or indeed completely Anglo-Saxon surnames, making it difficult to determine their precise numbers on academic achievement lists. Furthermore, Jewish intermarriage rates have been substantial and rising over the last generation or two, further lessening the effectiveness of any numerical estimates based on surname.

Indeed, even as simple a figure as the size and historical growth of America’s total Jewish population is hotly contested among academic experts—even leaving aside the precise definition of “Jewish” itself—and probably uncertain to within 10-20% or perhaps even more, while estimates of intermarriage rates have also provoked huge scholarly or organizational disputes. So given likely errors in several underlying elements, my detailed resultant analysis must be regarded as laced with major uncertainties. However, as I argued in my original article and its quantitative appendices, the approach I followed was probably not unreasonable.

Although the Hillel enrollment figures are mere estimates, they are the only ones available, and thus have been regularly used by the New York Times and other elite MSM outlets, while also constituting the basis for Prof. Jerome Karabel’s award-winning scholarship. Indeed, Hillel’s 1999 claims of a significant decline in Jewish enrollment at Princeton provoked a massive local and national media firestorm, soon persuading the university to investigate and overhaul its entire admissions policy. So I feel comfortable in following the lead of all these other reputable organizations and utilizing the Hillel numbers, while certainly still treating them with some caution.

With regard to estimating Jewish numbers on lists of high academic performers, I already discussed some of the underlying methods and justifications in my Quantitative Appendix E, but should certainly summarize and extend my arguments.

First, the enormous historical over-representation of American Jews on lists of top academic performers led me to generally assume that nearly all distinctively East European or Germanic names were likely or almost certainly Jewish. This over-estimation was intended to partially compensate for the substantial fraction of Jews whose surnames—such as Miller, Gordon, or Brody—would be completely impossible to detect. For entirely similar reasons, I tended to assume that all “Lees” were actually East Asian, even though that surname is also very common among American whites and blacks.

ORDER IT NOW

Obviously, such a “direct inspection” approach to ethnic surname analysis is still fraught with error, and should certainly not be regarded as precise. However, after my article appeared, someone brought to my attention a column written a couple of years ago by J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Jewish Forward, which focused on exactly the same question of recent Jewish academic performance, and estimated the number of Jewish names appearing on the finalist lists of the Science Talent Search for this purpose. I therefore compared my own STS finalist estimates with those of Goldberg for the particular handful of years he examined and discovered that the match was almost exact: he counted 100 Jewish names across those ten years, while my own total came to 96. Such estimation methodologies are highly subjective and imprecise, but since my figures were so close to those produced by the editor of America’s leading Jewish newspaper, I doubt my approach is wildly in error.

Next, I validated my methods by applying two rounds of Weyl Analysis, an ethnic estimation technique developed by Nathaniel Weyl some fifty years ago. His ingenious idea was simply to restrict analysis to those surnames which are absolutely distinctive to an ethnic group, and then estimate the total number by considering the fraction of group members who bear those distinctive surnames, based on Census and Social Security lists. For some groups, the task is particularly easy, since a large fraction of all Vietnamese are named Nguyen and so many Koreans are named Kim or Park, but for Jews and most other ethnicities a set of several different distinctive names must be employed for statistical validity. Furthermore, the technique would only be statistically valid when applied to very large datasets such as accumulated NMS semifinalist lists, which contain tens of thousands of names; such sampling would be useless for lists of Olympiad winners or even STS finalists.

With regard to Jewish surnames, I performed Weyl analysis based on two separate sets, a small group of distinctive surnames which had appeared on Internet discussions of the NMS semifinalists and a larger set which Weyl himself had used for his own ethnic analyses. As I mentioned on Prof. Andrew Gelman’s statistics blog, my estimate of recent Jewish NMS semifinalists was 5.95% based on direct inspection, and 5.92% and 6.03% for the two Weyl analyses. These three results were quite consistent and thereby tend to validate the approximate accuracy of the direct inspection methodology, which strengthens the case for its use on the STS, Olympiad, and other lists, for which Weyl Analysis is statistically inapplicable.

The possible impact of intermarriage rates is a separate one. In general, intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews tend to be roughly gender-neutral, so a simple surname analysis would tend to identify one-half of the half-Jews, one-quarter of the quarter-Jews, and so forth. However, it appears plausible that Hillel’s estimates of Jewish numbers might include a much larger fraction of part-Jews, possibly resulting in an inconsistency between estimates of Jewish elite enrollments and separate estimates of high Jewish academic performance. However, I would argue that the impact of this potential mismatch would probably be relatively small.

Although the figures are hardly certain, it appears that at most only 40-50% of identified Jews today enrolled at colleges come from intermarriages, while a generation or so ago the figure was probably closer to 20%. The gender-neutrality of such intermarriages means that the surname estimation error would have thus increased by 10-15% during these decades, leading to an increased relative underestimate of high Jewish academic performance in that same range. However, the apparent decline in such Jewish performance during those decades has been closer to 70-80%, implying that only a small portion might be due to mismatch, and for the same reason, only a relatively small part of any inconsistency between performance and enrollment might have the same cause.

These obviously represent several separate points of possible error—reliance on the Hillel estimates, the uncertainty in surname analysis, and the impact of intermarriage—and such errors might easily compound in the final result. For that reason, if the Jewish enrollment anomalies I noticed in the Ivy League had merely been in the 50% or even the 100% range, I probably would have ignored them, as quite possibly being due to such measurement errors. However, the actual anomaly was in the 1,000% range, and seems very unlikely to be due to such simple measurement-error causes.

These same challenges to my Jewish surname estimation methods had previously been discussed in the comments of a somewhat obscure rightwing Jewish blog.

On a different matter, I should mention that Slate recently ran a rather eccentric article on a topic somewhat related to mine, and the author briefly referenced my work, though he misidentified me as “Run Unz.”

 

Finally, one of the issues raised in all my Yale events was the considerable skepticism surrounding my suggestion that Harvard and its top national peers should use their gigantic financial endowments to eliminate undergraduate tuition, as I had discussed at length in my sidebar Paying Tuition to a Giant Hedge Fund. As it happens, today’s NYT carried a story on leading university endowments, and the figures indicated that eliminating all tuition would require merely reallocating only about 10% of yearly endowment expenditures, or perhaps a bit more if room and board were included; meanwhile, this would also allow the elimination of an enormously complex and costly financial aid bureaucracy.

I would argue that such a change might attract massive positive media attention, with beneficial reverberations throughout our economically-polarized society. Given the tiny financial cost, there seems no logical reason for those school to resist such an idea.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Meritocracy 
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  1. […] Harvard and its top national peers should use their gigantic financial endowments to eliminate undergraduate tuition […]

    Apologies if someone has already point this out, but the above suggestion is not without precedent. In recent years Berea has also come to make heavy use of Pell grants for those who qualify. This is little surprise since its endowment, though large for a rural liberal arts school, is hardly the size of Harvard’s. Yet, even so they make it work and provide a solid education.

  2. Trying to find the right algorithm for determining what names are Asian and what are Jewish is very interesting, but isn’t the only pertinent question, in considering the subject of college admissions, what knowledge those conducting the admissions process have of these criteria and what significance it has to them? There may be a number of reasons, ranging from altruistic to venal, for admissions officers to show preference for students who fall into certain categories, but I don’t think much will be learned unless extensive and candid interviews are conducted with a good cross-sample of such persons to determine if they place applicants into certain categories, how they determine who fits into those categories, and what they make of the fact when such a fit is made.

  3. spite says:

    This is a comment from the yale article:
    “I would love to tell you that all the scars of American history have been healed, but I can’t,” Ugonna Eze ’16 said. “One day affirmative action will be irrelevant, but as of now it’s not.”

    This in a nutshell is why affirmative action will never go away, In both South Africa and Malaysia, the group that controls the levers of power also grants affirmative action for its own group. In America “diversity” involves a more complex mix of groups, but there is no way they will ever include southern Babtists in that special category, or even whites when they become a minority (even when being the second biggest as California has recently achieved).

  4. Sheldon says:

    The part of your analysis that seemed even more problematic to me was that admissions offices were consciously or unconsciously biased on behalf of Jews. (I should add that I think you have conclusively demonstrated that there is a bias against Asians.) Are the front lines of admissions personnel Jewish to such an extent that they sway the numbers to the extent you describe, and do they really respond disproportionately when they come across what seems to be a Jewish applicant? It would be great if this proposition could be tested in some way – e.g., totally identical applications with different surnames and measuring the result.

  5. To pigeonhole people into groups is the height of assumption and presumption. To assume that people of a certain ethnic,religious or racial background act a certain way or think a certain way or have the same culture,because of their backgrounds, is a mistake of the highest order. People are individuals. Dividing people into “groups” accomplishes for the Cultural Marxist a victory in the dividing and conquering of the American Culture. This works by pitting one group against another. America should be a nation of individuals that are judged by their individual merits and abilities. Americans should not be divided up into ethnic groups and then judged on their group “identity.” As an example,many major symphony orchestras interview potential members from behind a screen. Never seeing or knowing the race,color,gender or nationality of the potential member and only judging the quality of the applicants musical talent. In the end,choosing the best musician. Finally,people should be judged as to their individual abilities and if it happens that one ethnic group is “overrepresented” on a campus then so be it.

  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “this might raise troubling questions of exactly how the university administrators define their vaunted public commitment to “diversity” and also the nature of their recruitment and admissions policies.”
    Mr. Unz, since The Gatekeepers figured so prominently in your previous article, the story of the admissions officer’s quest to track down a Native American applicant (who eventually flunked out of Wesleyan) provides one means to define their commitment and policies.

  7. TomB says:

    Sheldon wrote:

    “It would be great if this proposition (of bias in favor of jews) could be tested in some way – e.g., totally identical applications with different surnames and measuring the result.”

    Well sure it would. But it’s a funny thing that when it comes to *this* sort of alleged discrimination (even despite its blaring indicia) that people seem to insist on this sort of conclusive evidence of same.

    When it comes to forms of discrimination *by* non-jewish whites against others, however, gee, we are told all we really have to do to conclude racism is perceive some blatantcy in disparity (such as very few black faces in an otherwise huge gallery of people somewhere, for instance. And then even in the court system where such anti-minority or anti-women discrimination is alleged we been told by our lawmakers and EEOC-types that damn near all you have to do is establish damn near any statistical disparity, and bada bing, you win. And in the case of affirmative action of cours, we are told that there doesn’t even have to be *any* finding of *any* past discrimination to justify some future favoritism scheme.

    When it comes to jewish favoritism however, citing anything other than the most rigorous, totally conclusive evidence is likely gonna get you being called an anti-semite.

    And absent such evidence any such claims made—and maybe even *with* such evidence—you certainly aren’t gonna get the attention of the mainstream media. No matter how devotedly they seem to love reporting the other sorts of anti-minority discrimination.

  8. MMCCANN says:

    Berea isn’t the only precedent. Cooper Union offers full tuition (valued significantly higher then Harvards) for Free.

  9. Anne says:

    I think that affirmative action is having some troubling effects on our country. We have different standards for different groups of people. The rules in our country have become unclear. It would be one thing if it were clearly talked about, but it isn’t. I believe that when schools release their average SAT scores, they don’t even include the scores of their affirmative action students.

    It’s one thing to give preference to someone from an under-represented group if candidates are equally qualified. But admitting individuals who aren’t qualified simply because they are of a certain race can create resentment from others. Further, unqualified students often fail to thrive when at college.

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Tom B, you’ll find no accusation – overt or covert – of the kind you suggest in my comment. Please don’t confuse me with the demons in your own mind. But you also oversimplify how discrimination is determined. In fact there are many quite rigorous studies that demonstrate hiring and admissions discrimination, many using the exact approach I suggested.

    Beyond that, Ron Unz is suggesting that in this case there exists considerable discrimination FOR (Jews) as well as discrimination AGAINST (Asians). I don’t think it’s wrong for me to want to understand more about how the former process actually works, and if in fact it works as he suggests.

  11. A couple of weeks ago I read a post on Balkinization that raised an idea I myself have often thought would be a good starting point for all of this. We need to give up on the idea that we can rank students individually. At best, we can sort students into broad categories like “Highly qualified,” “Well Qualified,” “Marginally qualified” and “Not qualified.” Then, on the assumption that the sorting process is nevertheless biased, draw random students from each pool, with a bias towards merit. As Romney would say, pick a number: Make 75 percent of initial offers to students drawn randomly from the “highly qualified” pool, 20 percent from the “Well qualified” pool, 4 percent from the “Marginally qualified” pool, and 1 percent from the “not qualified” pool.

  12. The demographic homogenization of university admissions has taken its toll on the diversity of existing extracurricular institutions. Declining legacy admission rates translate into competitive decimation in high overhead team sports and defunding of long standing literary, social , dining and debating clubs.

  13. Anne says:

    TomB states:

    “When it comes to forms of discrimination *by* non-jewish whites against others, however, gee, we are told all we really have to do to conclude racism is perceive some blatantcy in disparity (such as very few black faces in an otherwise huge gallery of people somewhere, for instance.

    When it comes to jewish favoritism however, citing anything other than the most rigorous, totally conclusive evidence is likely gonna get you being called an anti-semite.”

    TomB, I agree with you.

  14. TomB says:

    Anne wrote:

    “It’s one thing to give preference to someone from an under-represented group if candidates are equally qualified. But admitting individuals who aren’t qualified simply because they are of a certain race can create resentment from others. ”

    No it’s not “one thing” to “give preference to someone from an underrepresented group if candidates are equally qualified,” Anne. It’s called unjust discrimination because you are are hurting an individual who had nothing whatsoever to do with hurting anyone in favor of someone who you can’t prove was ever hurt by anyone.

    Moreover, because its logic is that you are trying to reward a *group* instead of an individual, you can’t differentiate it when the unqualified member from your favored group demands a position over a qualified one from an unfavored group.

    After all, you aren’t interested in rewarding the individual in the first instance, just his or her group, and you were willing to hurt another individual from another group to do so. So why now hurt your favored group because of the lack of qualifications of just one of its members? And since this is the logic, that’s why such a thing inevitably turns into hiring the unqualified.

    You can’t smear over the unsmearable, Anne: Either you believe in individual rights or group rights, period.

  15. Escher says:

    With grade inflation having skyrocketed in recent years, it is probably very hard to flunk out of college, even in the “ultra-selective” Ivy leagues. What admissions quotas do in such an environment is give a free pass to under-qualified students. Thankfully tech schools like Caltech have stayed relatively clean so far.

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    If it were true that affirmative action beneficiaries got in over someone else with substantially lower grades, being smart and determined enough to pass and then graduate justifies the decision and makes it more than fair.

  17. Abe Kohen says:

    I was curious enough to look at the Harvard PBKs of 2013 to see if the distribution was indeed 39/49/13 % for Juniors and 54/34/11 % overall or for Seniors. Of the 24 Juniors, I estimate 8 NJ/W; 8 A; 7 J; 1 indeterminate. Of the 48 seniors, I assume 13 NJ/W; 19 A; 16 J. When I encountered a name which I thought might be J, but usually is not, I assigned it NJ/W.

    Juniors probably Jewish (7, or 29%): Julian Baird Gewirtz, Ike Isaac Greenstein, Jillian Jacob Jordan, Lee Cap Seligman, Kevin Matthew Stone, Emily Sarah Unger, Alexa Katherine Zahl.

    Your 39/49/13 looks more like 33/33/29.

    Seniors probably Jewish(16, or 33%): Hana Bajramovic, Julie Rebecca Barzilay, Miranda Leigh Beltzer, Beth Eliana Braiterman, Daniel Stephen Garber, Andrew Robert Hellman, Ethel Louise Hylton, Madeline Marie Magnuson, Samuel Evan Milner, Ariel Samantha Mitnick, Nadine Rachel Rubinstein, Adam Benjamin Gelernter Sealfon, Eli Manfred Stein, Carolyn Sarah Maasland Stein, Jason Stephen Wien, Michele Sasha Zemplenyi

    Your 54/34/11 looks more like 27/39/33. Big difference.

    Yet when it came to college administrators, you assumed Jewishness despite last names which are usually NOT Jewish.

  18. Ron, do you think perhaps the overrepresentation of jews versus their actual academic achievement could be explained (at least partially) as a bias in favor of liberals? That is, a disproportionate number of high achieving whites who are active in liberal causes are jewish. I could imagine that when university admissions committees are faced with a choice between a high achieving conservative (or non political) kid from the south vs. a high achieving kid from new York who was involved in some gay advocacy stuff that they would choose the liberal kid every single time.

    Also, can you elaborate on how you would imagine this bias in favor of jews would look in practice. We have a general idea of how regular affirmative action works (e.g., separating out applications of certain minority groups and evaluating them using a separate criteria), but I presume this isnt how you envision it playing out with jewish preference. Do you think its unconscious, purposeful but unspoken, totally out in the open and they actually separate the applications into a “jewish stack” etc?

  19. Adam says:

    It would be nice as libertarian jerry says if everyone were treated as individuals regardless of ethnic, religious, or racial background. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, although I do think it has improved more than in years past. That said, how you were raised does have a bearing on who you are. Whether this should be used for negative selection is another point entirely. The most interesting point to me is the rolling up of all whites as “caucasian” when, historically speaking, there is a large seperation of achievement within the group based on geographic, and even more so, on faith. The lone Southern Baptist in the first paragraph is a good example. I wonder if Duke, the “Harvard of the South”, is more representitive of that particular demographic than the Northeastern universities?

  20. Abe Kohen says:

    Since you assert that membership in PBK is merit-based, and the PBK Jewish probability data that I show for Harvard is in line with the admission stats, I don’t see any bias in favor of Jews at Harvard admissions. I have to admit though, Ron Unz, that identifying people as probably Jewish makes me uncomfortable as it follows the path of the Nazi selections. So my apologies to the 2013 Harvard PBKs, but I felt that your erroneous conjecture of a pro-Jewish bias was more damaging.

  21. Anne says:

    TomB said:

    “No it’s not “one thing” to “give preference to someone from an underrepresented group if candidates are equally qualified,” Anne. It’s called unjust discrimination because you are are hurting an individual who had nothing whatsoever to do with hurting anyone in favor of someone who you can’t prove was ever hurt by anyone.”

    First, TomB, your tone seems a little snippy.

    Second, I do not like affirmative action, but if it is to exist it should only be given to people who are at least as qualified as the others they are competing against. In our crazy country, we give jobs and admissions to schools to people who are less (and often much less) qualified than those they are competing against. I have long thought that affirmative action would end, however under Obama it seems if anything to be racheting up. I find this very discouraging.

  22. Ron Unz says: • Website

    Abe Kohen:

    The regular volume of comments usually precludes my direct participation, but given your detailed examination of the issue, I’ll make a special exception in your case.

    Your list of likely Jewish names in the 2013 Harvard PBKs generally seem very reasonable to me, though there will always a small number of borderline cases. But since only the full 2012 PBKs had been finalized, I stopped with that year, and focused on the 1966-2012 lists, ignoring the partial 2013 results.

    Small samples inevitably lead to the problem of statistical fluctuations, and this is obviously true for the “Junior 24 PBKs.” In fact, checking my own estimates for 2000-2012, I found a huge dispersion of annual results, with the number of likely Jewish names ranging between 0 and 9, but averaging about 4.6. So it’s very possible that the 2013 figure is just an outlier due to the academic quality of the particular students for that year.

    The total PBKs for a given year generally run 160-170, so the annual fluctuations are much smaller, but still present. During 2000-2012 my estimates of the number of likely Jewish names ranged between 17 and 35, or 10% to 20%. For these reasons, I only reported my results aggregated by decade, thereby minimizing these fluctuations.

    You might want to examine some of the annual lists on the Harvard website, and see how well your estimates of likely Jewish names might match my own, as reported in Appendix G. I doubt the match would be exact, but I do suspect it would be reasonably close.

    Incidentally, as I also discussed in that appendix, the presence of large numbers of International students in recent decades renders the PBK figures somewhat unreliable as an estimate of the distribution of American performance. The overwhelming majority of International students come from countries with very small or even non-existent Jewish populations, and it’s very possible that a disproportionate number of the Harvard PBKs with Asian or non-Jewish white names may be such Internationals, thereby distorting the implied American ethnic ratios. That’s one reason I confined my mention of the PBK estimates to just a footnote.

  23. TomB says:

    You’re right Anne, not seeing where you were coming from it was wrongfully snippy and I apologize, and per your further comment I do now understand your thinking.

  24. One would think that with the greatness of Asian scholarship in Ivy League institutions. said Asians would go on to become CEOs of at least 45% of US corporations or similar institutions but the opposite has taken place. i.e. few to none becoming CEOs of corporations. It would be interesting to see the merit of the initial hypotheses and scholarship vis a vis the present outcome for at least 5 decades on why this transfer has not happened and interestingly will never happen. Ideas, anyone

    I recall that a major corporation (Big Pharma) had! a CEO who claimed to have received an “advanced’ degree but it turned out to be false but said CEO was kept on board because the corporation actually saw examples of the excellent job this non advanced degree CEO had and that was deemed to be the true modus operadi of retention and of course, high stock price i.e. the bottom line of ROI and its benefits. Just sayin’

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