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Diversity or Discrimination?: Harvard Admissions on Trial  

Amidst a trial that began on October 15th, Harvard University faces accusations of unfairly discriminating against its Asian American applicants. First submitted in 2014, the lawsuit, filed by an activist group called Students for Fair Admission (SFFA), has brought new controversy to Boston’s Federal District Court. The group accuses Harvard University of upholding restrictive racial preferences that cause it to be more difficult for Asian Americans to be accepted compared to other races. SFFA, spearheaded by activist Edward Blum, aims to “support and participate in litigation that will restore the original principles of our nation’s civil rights movement” by eliminating the consideration of race in college admissions.

SFFA defends their claims with evidence found in Harvard’s own reports that were recently exposed to the public. These 2013 reports reveal that Harvard had conducted an internal examination of their admissions process and found a bias against their Asian American applicants. However, the university never made changes based on this discovery. In fact, SFFA noted that while Asian Americans scored highest on areas such as test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities, their chances of admittance were unfairly decreased by their consistently lower “personality ratings”, some of which were assigned without even meeting with the applicants themselves. Moreover, Harvard’s records revealed often stereotypical personality assessments of Asian Americans. Interviewers’ comments included, “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor…” and “busy and bright, [but will] need to fight it out with many similar to him”. Clearly, SFFA argues, race is a negative factor in admissions for Asian Americans, though in contrast, a positive factor for other minorities.

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Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research applied ten years of admissions data to four theoretical types of applicant criteria to create this chart. If only academics were considered in the admissions process, Asian Americans would form 43% of the admitted class. That year, Asian Americans formed just 19% of the admitted class.

While SFFA believes that this evidence “proves that Harvard engages in racial balancing” and “uses race as far more than a ‘plus’ factor” in the admissions process, Harvard adamantly refutes this accused bias. The university claims that SFFA’s research is incomplete and that statistical evidence cannot encapsulate their multifaceted, holistic admissions process. Furthermore, the university staunchly believes that not considering race in admissions would hurt student body diversity.

In the trial’s opening statements, lawyer Adam Mortara stated, “The future of affirmative action is not on trial over the next few weeks.” However, this trial unquestionably renews the controversy surrounding affirmative action, a fifty-five-year-old government initiative seen as both a cure to injustice and a source of injustice itself. Affirmative action, coined by President John F. Kennedy in the midst of the American Civil Rights movement, ushered in a government initiative intended to provide equal opportunities for all races in America. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 mandated government officials to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin”. These efforts were continued by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s similar Executive Order 11246. Soon, affirmative action efforts were broadened to include other minority groups and women, and policy requirements were expanded to colleges, universities, and state and federal agencies.

The original intent of affirmative action was not to give preferential treatment to minority groups, but instead to provide equal opportunities in the workforce for all Americans. However, by the late 1970s, the use of racial quotas and minority set-asides, meant to be temporary solutions to “level the playing field”, raised controversy as they seemed to blur affirmative action’s original principles. Many argued that these were unconstitutional and, through “reverse discrimination”, promoted the very inequality the program was intended to eliminate.

In 1978, Alan Bakke, a white male, sued University of California, Davis after being rejected admission twice. He cited evidence that his test scores and grades surpassed those of the accepted minority students, who were reserved 16 percent of the admission spots. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, where it was decided that while universities can consider race during the admissions process, the use of racial quotas and minority set-asides is unconstitutional. Affirmative action programs began being analyzed to the standard of strict scrutiny that presents academic institutions with “the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.” It is the belief of SFFA and many disillusioned Asian Americans that Harvard University is not in compliance with these standards.

Regardless of the outcome of this tense trial, and regardless of whether or not Harvard’s admissions activities are deemed illegal, this case is a reflection of the evolving goals and purpose of academic institutions. As an Ivy League school and the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, Harvard University constantly raises the bar as a dynamic standard of academic excellence and innovation. Diversity, Harvard expresses, is essential to fulfilling this purpose. Yet, there is an inherent contradiction in the pursuit of diversity and equality through discriminatory means. If academic institutions stand by diversity and equality, then why should they pursue these principles through an inherently unequal process in which one’s race can serve as a bonus or a burden? Is it possible to consider race in admissions and create diverse student populations without discriminating against others? Perhaps, the ultimate irony lies in the nature of equality itself: can it ever be achieved without a cost?

Update: February 10th, 2019. This article was written four months ago; the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard trial ended after three weeks of proceedings on November 2nd of 2018. However, the trial will resume and discussions will continue during this upcoming year, as Judge Allison D. Burroughs will hear an additional set of arguments from both parties on February 13th.

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