Asian Americans at Center of Lawsuit Against Harvard

A lawsuit alleging that Harvard University’s admissions policy is biased against Asian Americans went to trial on Monday in Boston, with a decision expected to be made in three weeks by U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs.

The trial stems from a lawsuit filed against Harvard by Arlington, Va.-based Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) nearly four years ago and has implications for affirmative action policies at universities across the country.

The plaintiffs, who have the support of the U.S. Department of Justice, argue that Asian American applicants, despite having the strongest academic records of any ethnic group, are admitted at the lowest rate because of low “personal ratings.” Harvard denies any wrongdoing and Asian American civil rights groups argue that Asians are being used as a tool by opponents of affirmative action.

When the lawsuit was filed, SFFA said in a statement, “The Trump Administration in July withdrew Obama-era guidance that gave colleges a wink and a nod to racially discriminate. This means that colleges like Harvard that use racial preferences in admissions will receive more legal scrutiny …

“Between 2011 and 2016, the Obama Education Department issued seven notices advising colleges how they may legally promote racial diversity. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits racial discrimination by institutions receiving federal funds. But the Supreme Court has held that colleges may consider race in admissions as long it isn’t the ‘decisive’ factor. Quotas and point systems are forbidden.

“The Obama department advised colleges to consider race as part of what it called an ‘individualized, holistic review of all applicants.’ Colleges also were urged to consider race-neutral alternatives, but that they need not be adopted if they are ‘unworkable.’ In other words, it’s the thought that counts. Many colleges took the guidance as cover to discriminate.

“Harvard’s practices will be the first to be examined under this new spotlight. Students for Fair Admissions has sued the school for discriminating against Asian American applicants and unconstitutionally favoring other minority groups …

“Consider Harvard’s ‘holistic’ admissions review. Applicants are rated on a scale of one to six on academics, extracurricular activities, athletics and highly subjective ‘personal’ criteria. Admissions officers also assign applicants an overall score …

“Asian Americans boasted higher extracurricular and academic ratings than all other racial groups. They also received higher scores from alumni interviewers. But they were rated disproportionately lower on personal criteria. Only about one in five Asian Americans in the top 10 percent of academic performers received a ‘2’ personal rating. Yet blacks and Hispanics with much lower grades and SAT scores received high personal ratings.”

Asian American Coalition for Education

Yukong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education.

The Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE), which consists of 132 organizations nationwide, filed a civil rights complaint against Yale University over its admissions policy and received support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. AACE also filed a complaint against Harvard.

“Unfortunately, after mounting evidence of Harvard’s anti-Asian racial discrimination was revealed by Students for Fair Admissions during its lawsuit against Harvard University, Yale University and a few other elite American universities still refused to abandon their discriminatory admissions practices modeled after Harvard,” AACE said in a statement. “Instead, they jointly filed an amicus brief on July 30, 2018 supporting Harvard’s anti-Asian discrimination under a convenient pretense of diversity …

“Asian American communities are pleased to see that the Trump Administration has taken several concrete steps to provide Asian American children with the equal protection of the laws. Last November, the U.S. Department of Justice started to investigate Harvard’s admissions practices as a direct result of the AACE-led civil rights complaint against Harvard in May 2015.

“On July 3, 2018, the Trump Administration adopted AACE policy recommendations on college admissions by rescinding seven policy documents that promoted racial balancing in postsecondary education. In August 2018, DOJ issued United States’ Statement of Interests in support of Students for Fair Admissions’ lawsuit against Harvard University. Today, we are very heartened to learn that the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice are launching a joint investigation into Yale University’s discriminatory practices against Asian American students.”

AACE President Yukong Zhao had a message for American colleges: “Please stop your unlawful admission practices and treat Asian American students fairly and lawfully. Asian Americans follow the laws, work hard, and make tremendous contributions to American economic prosperity and technological leadership in the world. Our children deserve to have equal rights to pursue their American dreams.”

Harvard’s Response

In an open letter to the university community dated Oct. 10, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote, “Let me be unequivocal: The college’s admissions process does not discriminate against anybody. I am confident the evidence presented at trial will establish that fact. The Supreme Court has twice ruled on this issue and has held up our admissions process as an exemplar of how, in seeking to achieve a diverse student body, race may enter the process as one factor among many in consideration.

“During the trial, the plaintiff is likely to make provocative assertions that will receive public attention and cause some to question our admissions practices. I want all of you to know that each Harvard College student is admitted affirmatively. Each student brings something special to our community and contributes to our rich learning environment in a way that is unique.

“Harvard would be a dull place — and not likely achieve the educational aspirations we have for our students — if we shared the same backgrounds, interests, experiences, and expectations for ourselves.

“At the same time, this lawsuit has the potential to create divisions on our campus and in our broader alumni community. Reasonable people may have different views, and I respect the diversity of opinion that this case may generate. I would hope all of us recognize, however, that we are members of one community — and will continue to be so long after this trial is in the rearview mirror. What kind of community we will be, however, will be determined by how we treat each other over the next few weeks.

“As I said in my inaugural address, we must be quick to understand and slow to judge. I hope we will approach one another with mutual respect and consider all points of view, not just during the trial but also beyond it.

“Every day on our campus provides countless opportunities to learn — both from the vast intellectual resources at our disposal and from those we encounter who make this community special. We have and will continue to embrace and celebrate diversity in every possible dimension.”