Harvard derides affirmative action lawsuit as 'ideological'

Both sides in a lawsuit alleging that Harvard University’s affirmative action policies discriminate against Asian American applicants are asking the court to rule in their favor without a trial.

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a non-profit membership group that advocates against racial preferences in college admissions, alleges that Harvard is discriminating against Asian Americans by trying to “limit the number of Asian Americans that attend the college.”

The complaint was originally filed in 2014, and on June 15 SFFA filed a motion asking that the court grant summary judgement due to “incontrovertible evidence” that Harvard is intentionally discriminating against Asian Americans through “racial balancing”—maintaining specific percentages of ethnic groups for each graduating class.

“No rational factfinder could conclude that Harvard’s admissions system complies with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” the complaint argues. Title VI states that discrimination is prohibited “on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

The SFFA’s primary complaint is that Harvard “discriminates both in subjective scoring and selection for admission to limit the number of Asian Americans that attend the college,” which it notes was determined not only by SFFA’s own “expert,” but also through an “internal investigation” in 2013 by Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research (OIR).

Instead of addressing the problem, however, SFFA maintains that Harvard instead “killed the investigation and buried the reports.”

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SFFA’s expert, Duke University Professor Peter Arcidiacono, reportedly found that Asian Americans “are significantly stronger than all other racial groups in academic performance,” and that they also “perform very well in non-academic categories and have higher extracurricular scores than any other racial group.” Because of this, Asian Americans receive higher academic scores on Harvard’s admissions rubric than do their peers.

In personality evaluations, however, Asian Americans receive the “lowest score of any racial group” from the Admissions Office, even though their personality scores were “on average, at the top with respect to personal ratings—comparable to white applicants and higher than African-American and Hispanic applicants,” when reviewed by alumni interviewers. 

Alumni interviewers, the motion asserts, score Asian Americans fairly in comparison to applicants of other ethnicities, whereas the Admissions Office assigned Asian Americans the lowest scores of any racial group.

Arcidiacono also found evidence of discrimination in the overall admissions scores, noting that Asian Americans “receive overall scores similar to white applicants that are one academic decile lower.”

“If Harvard admitted students based only on their academic index, Asian Americans would comprise over 50% of the admitted class,” the SFFA contends.

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The SFFA filing goes on to assert that Harvard’s OIR, using logistic regression models, likewise concluded that “Harvard’s admissions system is, in fact, biased against Asian Americans and that there is no neutral explanation for it.” 

According to one model, Asian Americans would theoretically comprise 43.4 percent of the admitted class in academics, and even if their low personality ratings were accepted at face-value, that share would only fall to 26 percent. In reality, however, Asian Americans only constitute 18.7 percent of the student body. 

“OIR’s report had a section titled ‘Conclusions.’ It was left blank. The report had a section titled ‘Possible Explanations.’ It also was left blank,” the SFFA document notes.

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Harvard, for its part, is also seeking summary judgment in the case, asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit in a motion arguing that the SFFA does not have standing to sue because it is “merely a vehicle to litigate the ideological preferences of its founder Edward Blum.”

Noting that it receives a high volume of applications from students with stellar academic qualifications, Harvard explains that it employs a “whole-person” approach to admissions that incorporates race as one of many factors.

“If an applicant chooses to identify his or her race or ethnicity—singular or plural—it is considered as one factor among many that may inform an applicant’s life experience and the contributions the applicant may make to a class that is diverse on many dimensions,” Harvard asserts, citing “hardship, intellectual passions, artistic or athletic ability, public service, and much more” as additional considerations.

Arguing that it has long held diversity, especially racial diversity, to be “essential to our pedagogical objectives and institutional mission,” Harvard contends that it has tried repeatedly in recent years to devise an admissions process that could achieve racial diversity without considering race, but has concluded that no workable solution exists.

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“SFFA was created by activist Ed Blum for the specific purpose of suing Harvard and other universities to end the consideration of race in admissions,” Harvard asserts in its motion, contending that the organization “lacks standing” in the case because its “standing members” cannot demonstrate a specific “injury in fact” that has been directly caused by Harvard’s admissions policies and could be redressed by the requested relief.

Noting that “many of SFFA’s members can claim only past wrongs (the denial of admission),” while the lawsuit “seeks only forward-looking relief,” Harvard argues that changing its admissions policies would do nothing to help those plaintiffs.

Reiterating that it has “a compelling interest in a diverse student body,” the university also maintains that its consideration of race in admissions policies is “narrowly tailored” as required by the Supreme Court, saying it “considers the entirety of every applicant’s file, subjects every applicant to the same rigorous review as all others, treats race or ethnicity as but one of many factors that might bear on the perspective the applicant might bring to Harvard, and employs no quotas.”

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Harvard also challenges the research conducted for SFFA by Dr. Arcidiacono, claiming that its own expert, Dr. David Card, determined that Arcidiacono’s findings are not “statistically meaningful.”

“Even assuming race has a meaningful effect on the likelihood of admission for certain candidates, that does not mean that race is anything more than a permissible ‘plus factor’ in the Harvard admissions process,” the school contends, asserting that “race is by no means the factor that influences the outcome more often, or in a more pronounced way, than many others.”

Harvard then goes on to dispute SFFA’s claim that there are race-neutral alternatives that would achieve the diversity that administrators seek, citing the determination of an internal committee that met from 2017 until early 2018.

While Harvard does have race-neutral practices designed to promote diversity, such as financial aid for low-income students and an “Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program,” the document contends that even with those policies in place, eliminating the consideration of race would cause significant reductions in the percentage of “African-American, Hispanic, or ‘Other’” students.

“Months of extensive discovery failed to produce documentary or testimonial support for SFFA’s accusation that Harvard systematically seeks to limit the number of Asian Americans or discriminates against them,” the university declares. “To the contrary, the evidence shows that Harvard values the diversity that Asian-American students bring to its campus—like students of all other races—and that Harvard’s Admissions Office seeks, as part of its diversity initiatives, to recruit and enroll strong Asian-American students.”

According to The Harvard Crimson, the case will go to trial on October 15 if neither side is granted summary judgment before then.

Follow the author of this article on Facebook: Cory Compton