The Harvard lawsuit: the facts laid bare

December 29, 2018

Four years after a federal lawsuit was filed against Harvard for discriminating against Asian American students, a trial was finally held in the last few weeks of October. The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admission (SFFA), accused Harvard of making their admissions process harder for Asian American students compared to students of other races with similar achievements. Harvard denied the allegations.

According to National Public Radio, SFFA first pointed out how a Harvard program sent recruitment letters to prospective students based on their Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) scores. Compared to white male students who lived in a rural area, Asian males had to score, on average, 60 points greater in order to have a letter sent to them. Harvard responded by saying that these programs are meant to increase interest among populations of students who might not have been considering Harvard and that these letters held no weight during the admissions process.

However, during the trials, Peter S. Arcidiacono, a Duke University economist, testified that after reviewing six years of data on Harvard admissions, he found that Asian American and white students were placed at a disadvantage in order to increase the attendance of  Latino and black students. According to The New Yorker, although Asian American students consistently outperformed other students in terms of extracurriculars and academics, there was a penalty against Asian Americans.

On the contrary, David Card, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, testified for Harvard and argued that there wasn’t evidence of discrimination found in the data that Arcidiacono reviewed. Rather, Card argued that Arcidiacono had misinterpreted the data because he didn’t understand Harvard’s admission process. These conflicting arguments then led to the complete reveal of “90,000 pages of internal Harvard admissions documents,” according to Prep Scholar, a site that offers help for standardized testing. From the documents, it became clear that Harvard’s admissions officers rated students in four categories: academic achievement, extracurricular activities, athletic abilities, and personal qualities. Then, officers would give an overall rating.

After analyzing the data, Arcidiacono found that while Asian American students outperformed others in terms of the academic and extracurricular scores, they were trailing behind students of other races in terms of their personal and overall scores. Arcidiacono also argued that students who were admitted tended to have higher personal and overall scores. Therefore, SFFA expressed that these ratings were a major source of discrimination against Asian American students.

Harvard responded to these allegations by stating that race only played a significant part in the overall score and that these ratings were only considered in the preliminary stages of the admissions process, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Card countered by stating that since Harvard’s applicant pool is filled with high-achieving students, it would be difficult to only have admissions be based on test scores and GPA.

While this trial was focused on the effect of possible racial bias in the admissions process on Asian American students, it also has broad implications on affirmative action. No matter what the district court rules, both parties have expressed their desire to appeal to a higher court. Therefore, if the SFFA wins, it could possibly “upend decades of affirmative action policies at colleges and universities across the country,” Anemona Hartocollis, a writer for The New York Times, explained.

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