Update on the Lawsuit Against Harvard Admissions
Dear H4A members,
This past week has seen a flood of coverage regarding the lawsuit against Harvard Admissions, with Asian Americans as a central focus.
As we have stated before, our board believes that the diversity of our campus—of students, faculty, staff and curriculum—is critical to a Harvard education, and we will continue to advocate on this front, including our current activism around Harvard's lack of an Asian American Studies program. We support an inclusive, whole-person admissions process that creates a student body that is diverse in many dimensions and is able to contribute to and make the most of a Harvard education. But we of course oppose quotas and any racial discrimination against Asian Americans or any students in this process. We encourage you to hold, as we do, these two separate ideas simultaneously.
The stakes of this lawsuit, which will likely go to trial in October, are high, as the decision could affect the future of inclusive, race-aware policies in schools, businesses and government. In an effort to get past the often inflammatory headlines, some of us have dug into the 1,000+ pages of data analysis produced by both parties in this case, which offer two very different points of view and two different statistical models bolstering those. There are many more months and perhaps years of arguments ahead, but we would like to highlight a few points.
For those of you not following the lawsuit closely since its filing in 2014, the case against Harvard is being led by Edward Blum, who claims that Harvard’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian Americans. He is an activist who has been trying to end policies that promote diversity and inclusion in many areas of American life. He was at the forefront in bringing down civil rights protections that benefited Asian Americans in the Voting Rights Act. He twice went to the Supreme Court on behalf of a white plaintiff in Fisher vs. University of Texas to end the consideration of race in admissions. After failing, he decided he needed Asian American plaintiffs, advertised for them and filed the lawsuit under the name “Students for Fair Admissions” (SFFA). While we agree that Harvard should not discriminate against Asian Americans or students of any race, his history gives us pause when considering his motives. We are also wary about Asian Americans being used as a wedge against other communities of color.
Note that SFFA's complaint seeks, in its words, "A permanent injunction requiring Harvard to conduct all admissions in a manner that does not permit those engaged in the decisional process to be aware of or learn the race or ethnicity of any applicant for admission." Blum has said he doesn't want Admissions to know even an applicant's name.
Harvard has said that without a holistic admissions process that considers race as just one factor among many factors, it cannot create a campus that is diverse enough to fulfill its educational mission. Harvard’s analysis argues that contrary to the narrative we hear so often, inclusive approaches vs. race-blind ones to admitting a diverse student body lead to higher academic ratings for the whole class.
Harvard’s consideration of the whole candidate includes not only an Academic Rating but also an Extracurricular Rating, an Athletic Rating and a Personal Rating. The headline news two weeks ago was around the numerical Personal Ratings that Harvard admissions officers assign each applicant, as SFFA accused Harvard of systematically depressing those scores of Asian Americans, which are in aggregate lower than those of other candidates. This New York Times story outlines those and SFFA’s other major assertions.
Harvard, which says it opposes and denies any racial discrimination, provides analysis showing no negative association with being Asian American as an applicant and contends that there is no evidence that admissions officers attempted to lower the Personal Ratings of Asian Americans. Harvard says the Personal Rating is not a “personality” score, as characterized by SFFA, but rather reflects information from the applicant’s essays, teacher and counselor recommendations and alumni interview reports that indicate whether the applicant will be the kind of student who will contribute to Harvard in the fullest. Harvard’s outside expert reports that the Personal Ratings scores line up with the recommendations and the interview reports.
It seems difficult from the available data to prove or disprove how being Asian American might affect any of the four main ratings, all of which include subjective elements. SFFA’s analysis shows that the Academic and Extracurricular Ratings come in higher than expected for Asian Americans, so is that bias too, just of a positive kind? Or are the ratings simply a result of a straight evaluation of the available information? Do biases originate earlier and creep in through the high school reports? Are many Asian Americans raised in a way that discourages developing the very qualities that Harvard is seeking? A mix of all of the above?
The reports raise as many questions as they answer. Our expectation is that Harvard should be vigilant about about any potential bias, conscious or unconscious, for applicants of any race. We would expect to have an Admissions Office that is diverse itself and trained to evaluate cultural context and recognize implicit bias in the reports they receive and the way they assign their own ratings. We will push Admissions to learn more, but it has been difficult during an active lawsuit to get information beyond what it is in the briefs.
We will continue to follow this closely, to seek answers and to keep you posted. We plan to have a plenary session addressing these issues at our Third Summit, which will be held on campus Oct. 26-28, 2018, and we hope you will join us for this chance to hear national experts on this topic.
For those of you who want to geek out on the data analysis, here are links to the filings from Harvard and SFFA. There will be responses from each side through the summer and then the trial is expected to begin in October, so be prepared for much more data and spin. This Times story captures a range of Asian Americans' views. For those of you who were in the applicant pool under examination (Classes of 2014-2019), or have children in it, the issue of whether applicant files will be publicly released is still in dispute, and we will likely be hearing more about that soon.
The H4A Board and Executive Committee