Harvard sued for alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants

Group claims admissions process weighed against Asian Americans while university filed brief denying discrimination

Harvard University has a consistent history of rating Asian American applicants lower on personality traits such as likability, according to court documents filed on Friday. The filings formed part of a high-profile lawsuit accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans.

The lawsuit has been brought by Students for Fair Admissions, an action group affiliated with Edward Blum, a controversial conservative who campaigns against affirmative action.

According to a Students for Fair Admissions analysis of more than 160,000 applicants who applied for admission over six cycles from 2000 to 2015, Asian Americans scored higher than other racial groups on measures like test scores, but fared less well when it came to an assessment of their personality. Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than other races on traits like likability, kindness and “positive personality”.

“There is no excuse for this, and Harvard cannot offer a single exculpatory explanation that a rational factfinder could accept,’’ the plaintiffs said in court documents. “Asian American applicants to Harvard are just as ‘helpful’, ‘courageous’, and ‘kind’ as white applicants.’’

The lawsuit claims that, in 2013, Harvard killed an internal report about its admissions policies which acknowledged that it discriminates against prospective Asian American students.

The report found that Asian Americans would comprise 43% of admissions if only academic qualifications were considered and 26% when extracurricular activities and personal ratings were considered. Yet at the time the research was conducted, Asian Americans made up 19% of the share of admitted students.

“It turns out that the suspicions of Asian American alumni, students and applicants were right all along,” the group, Students for Fair Admissions, said in its filing. “Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”


Almost a third of Harvard’s class of 2021 are legacies, according to a survey by the Harvard Crimson. Although most legal fights over college admissions focus on race, there has been historically been little attention on practices that privilege children of alumni.

Harvard filed its own brief on Friday denying discrimination against Asian-Americans. It called the data analysis presented by Students for Admissions “incomplete and misleading” and said it painted “a dangerously inaccurate picture of Harvard College’s whole-person admissions process by omitting critical data and information factors.”

“Thorough and comprehensive analysis of the data and evidence makes clear that Harvard College does not discriminate against applicants from any group, including Asian-Americans, whose rate of admission has grown 29% over the last decade,” Harvard said in a statement.

Students for Fair Admissions is headed by Edward Blum, a prominent activist who has challenged affirmative action in college admissions. The US supreme court has ruled universities may use affirmative action to help minority applicants get into college.

Conservatives have said such programs can hurt white people and Asian Americans and some experts believe that this case is being brought not to advance the cause of fairness but as a way to blunt efforts to help minorities in America who have been held back by institutional racism.

18MillionRising.org, for example, an Asian American activist group has accused Blum of “cherry-picking data and appealing to conservative racial ideals to rope in Asian American students to be a political wedge against affirmative action”. The group says “this strategy aims to divide and conquer People of Color by pitting Asian American students against other marginalized college hopefuls.”

D OiYan Poon, a professor at Colorado State University, who specializes in college access policies, further notes that while “Blum and others argue that the personality factor in Harvard’s evaluation and admission process is ‘anti-Asian’, they don’t seem to have a problem with the ways other factors, like SAT scores, are … racially biased metrics of academic potential.”

Blum has orchestrated a number of anti-affirmative-action lawsuits. In 2016, for example, the nation’s highest court rejected a high-profile challenge to a University of Texas program designed to boost the enrollment of minority students, which was brought by a white woman. Blum had originally found and supported the woman who pursued that case.

The documents filed on Friday morning are the latest installment in the ongoing lawsuit. The case is likely to go to trial in October all and could have a major impact on the use of race in college admissions.

Contributor

Arwa Mahdawi and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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