Harvard Ruling Heightens the Affirmative Action Debate

photo courtesy of harvard

     A court case against Harvard University over discriminatory admissions practices, brewing since 2014, reached a decision early in October. The case, brought forward by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), charged Harvard with seeking a certain racial composition in each class, and most controversially with discriminating against Asian American applicants. Harvard denied all charges of unfair admissions practices, and judge Allison Burroughs ruled in their favor, finding that the university upholds necessary diversity goals and does not participate in “racial balancing.” The case parallels similar arguments against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin. Many predict that the fight is far from settled, and will likely end up in the Supreme Court, possibly to have national repercussions in college admissions and their diversity practices.

     SFFA’s claims of Asian American discrimination were the most controversial aspect of the case and remain so in the decision. The group cited admissions data which revealed that Asian American applicants, as part of the holistic review process, were rated lower on personal scales though they surpassed others in academic and extracurricular areas, and thus Harvard was implementing a quota system to cap the Asian American admissions to a certain percentage. The university denied allegations, arguing that while race is an essential factor in assembling a class, it will not directly result in an admissions decision, whether positive or negative.

     At this junction the case examined a difficult balance between the qualitative and quantitative aspects of college admissions. While Asian American students often outperformed other applicants in GPA and standardized test scores, they received lower ratings of aspects that “cannot be fully captured by the statistical data” like “integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness,” according to The New Yorker. Harvard argued that these qualities are an essential element to admissions, but the plaintiffs countered that lower personal ratings were not accurate, but based in stereotypes that mathematic and other academic proficiencies might reduce an Asian American student’s capacities for such personal qualities. Harvard denied stereotyping by its admissions officers.

     The Harvard case prompted the investigation of other high-level institutions such as Stanford, Princeton and the University of California Berkeley. Stanford admitted to unconscious bias against Asian American applicants, while other institutions claimed no fault or bias. For many, the case recalls similar investigations of the 1980s Reagan administration which were seen as a conservative attempt to end affirmative action. The cases of the 1980s, much like those of today, meet contention in the possibility that investigating admissions practices and racial considerations in light of Asian American students pits those students against other minority groups.

     The New York Times cites Claire Jean Kim, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine as referring to the Harvard lawsuit as a “continuation of a historical dynamic that’s been around for almost two centuries.”

     Ethan Hwang, a writer for The Los Angeles Times, is discouraged by the ruling. “Harvard has said its affirmative action program increases diversity and gives disadvantaged students a better chance of getting into an elite university. But every system that gives one group an advantage ends up putting another at a disadvantage,” says Hwang.

     It must be clarified that the case does not proport the underrepresentation of Asian Americans at elite universities, as most Harvard classes are comprised of 25% Asian Americans on average. Instead, it examines the rate at which they are accepted versus the rate of application. Asian American students are admitted to the university at a lower rate than other applicants, increasing the competition of and requirements for their admissions. Hwang identifies a 2013 study which revealed that in a race-blind admissions trial, Asian Americans would comprise nearly half of the admitted students.

     As an addition to its favorable ruling for Harvard, the court did acknowledge the possibility of admissions processes reflecting “some implicit biases” which, “while regrettable, cannot be eliminated in a process that must rely on judgements of individuals,” encouraging that the admissions office provide training on implicit biases to reduce such discrimination. Some argue that this asset to the decision recognizes the problem as existent but insignificant, while others see the favorable ruling as strategic avoidance of a war on affirmative action, according to The New Yorker. But the war will likely come anyway.

     At the release of the decision, SFFA instantly filed an appeal in the First Circuit, one which implicates further years of deliberation and possibly an appearance in the Supreme Court. The case will become vital for the future of affirmative action, with the potential to permanently alter the race consciousness of college admissions. The ultimate decision will be far from simple, as affirmative action cases are no novelty, and numerous highly contested cases of the past provide precedent.

     “In case after case the courts have drawn a tight circle where affirmative action can live; the colleges that step outside of it will be ordered back in by a judge…The schools that use race in admissions have become adept at designing their programs to be legally airtight,” says Adam Harris of The Atlantic. Harris predicts that the arrival of the Harvard case before the Supreme Court will implicate questions of whether the conservative Supreme Court will break precedent, and whether the precedent of race-conscious admissions is strong enough to decide yet another case.

     The Harvard case and others of its kind fall in line with Varsity Blues, the investigation of wealthy and celebrity parents’ bribing institutions for their children’s admission. This cheating practice to gain undeserved entrance into elite schools has prompted admissions offices and tests like the SAT and ACT to examine their practices to better prevent such fraud. The scandal, much like the Harvard lawsuit, raises important examinations of deserving applicants versus those actually accepted. Can college admissions realistically be based on merit alone?

     The bitter disputes over affirmative action continue to affect students in the college admissions process. Ultimately, the ruling in Harvard’s favor temporarily upholds the precedent that racial consideration is necessary in admissions so long as it does not become determinative of admission, a caveat which implicates holistic review. It is likely that the appealed case will beget greater discussions of the nature and limitations of affirmative action programs, with the potential that college applicants in the next five to ten years will encounter different admissions standards and procedures or a redefined holistic review process.

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