Groups including Asian Americans pledge support to the Ivy League university’s affirmative action policy
The U.S. Department of Justice this week came out against Harvard University’s admission practices by announcing its support of an anti-affirmative action group that sued the Ivy League university for allegedly discriminating against Asian American applicants in its admission policies.
In a Statement of Interest filed in federal court Thursday, August 30, the Justice Department backed the Students for Fair Admissions group in claiming that Harvard University “has failed to show that it does not unlawfully discriminate against Asian Americans.”
The lawsuit dates back to 2014 when Students for Fair Admissions sued the university for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance.
“No American should be denied admission to school because of their race. As a recipient of taxpayer dollars, Harvard has a responsibility to conduct its admissions policy without racial discrimination by using meaningful admissions criteria that meet lawful requirements,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
He added that the case “is significant because the admissions policies at our colleges and universities are important and must be conducted lawfully.”
Harvard, which moved to dismiss the suit, responded to the Justice Department’s statement and said that it was “deeply disappointed” in the government’s siding with the plaintiff, “recycling the same misleading and hollow arguments that prove nothing more than the emptiness of the case against Harvard.”
“Harvard does not discriminate against applicants from any group, and will continue to vigorously defend the legal right of every college and university to consider race as one factor among many in college admissions, which the Supreme Court has consistently upheld for more than 40 years,” the university said. “Colleges and universities must have the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse communities that are vital to the learning experience of every student, and Harvard is proud to stand with the many organizations and individuals who are filing briefs in support of this position today.”
Among the arguments used against the university is its “personal rating” factor that anti-affirmative action groups say may be biased against Asian Americans.
In its filing, the Justice Department called the scoring system “vague and elusory.” In its press release, it said that the university “scores Asian-American applicants lower on the personal rating than white applicants.”
According to the university, the personal rating is meant to reflect on a “wide range of applicant information or applicant information, such as personal essays, which Harvard uses to understand the applicant’s full life story.”
This, it added, includes where the student grew up, what opportunities or challenges they faced in their families or communities, and what “impact they might have both at Harvard and after they graduate, as citizens and leaders out in the world.”
But as those against affirmative action got their nod of support from the U.S. government, a number of social scientists and scholars went on to pledge their support for Harvard.
Groups pledge support for affirmative action
Also on Thursday, over 500 social scientists and scholars filed their own briefs in support of Harvard’s admission policies.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice (Advancing Justice) in a press release said that the issues brought up by Students for Fair Admissions served to “further drive a wedge between Asian Americans and other communities of color.”
“The reality is that racism and segregation continue to unfairly limit educational opportunities in K-12 for students of color,” said Nicole Ochi, supervising attorney at Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. “Race also shapes our life experience and is part of who we are and what we bring to the table. The consideration of race as one of many factors in holistic admissions recognizes those realities. That recognition should not be conflated with unlawful discrimination against Asian Americans.”
She added: “The evidence is clear that Harvard’s constitutional consideration of race in a holistic admissions process benefits underrepresented minority students, including Asian Americans. As a civil rights organization that fights every day to end racism against Asian Americans and other people of color, we know that ending the inclusionary consideration of race will exacerbate, rather than ameliorate any problems with racial bias that Asian Americans experience.”
Central to the case is the definition of “merit,” said Advancing Justice – LA, adding that flat numerical indicators like SAT scores and grade point averages are not colorblind measures of merit.
“Research also confirms that the most promising students are not always the ones with the highest SAT scores or the best high school grades and that non-academic factors that predict success like grit, resourcefulness, creativity, and critical thinking are independent of (or even correlate negatively with) these traditional academic measures,” the group added.
Adding to the support of Harvard were some of the university’s current students who are allowed to submit evidence and participate in oral argument.
“America’s version of meritocracy is not race-blind,” said Jang Lee, a senior at the university. “Though the opposition says we should not be using race to decide our children’s destinies, race had already bound our destinies since birth.”
Alex Zhang, a junior at Harvard, said he benefited from the university’s “holistic, race-conscious admissions policy.”
“At Harvard, I have found a community of Asian Americans and other students of color that immeasurably contributed to my personal development. I think that Harvard still has a long way to go when it comes to race. Improving the racial climate for Asian Americans and supporting affirmative action programs are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary efforts to reduce racial bias,” he said.
Another student Daniel Lu, also a junior, said “Asian Americans will never have a fair shot at life in America until racism is eradicated from this country.
“We need affirmative action to help address this racism, but it is far from enough,” he added.
Harvard University is among the world’s most selective universities. Of this year’s entering class of 1,962 applicants, roughly 23 percent were Asian American.
The suit is currently pending in a federal court in Boston, and the trial between Students for Fair Admissions and Harvard University is slated to begin mid-October. The outcome is one experts say may affect the future of affirmative action in higher education.