A Run-Down of Harvard’s Historic Affirmative Action Trial

Is Harvard discriminating Asian-Americans in its admissions process?


Image from CNN.com.

A historic lawsuit against Harvard went to trial on Monday on behalf of Asian-American students who failed to gain admissions to the college. Students for Fair Admissions, the group who brought on the trial, claims that Harvard boosts the chances of admissions for black and Latino applicants and lowers the chances for Asian-Americans. This historic trial puts affirmative action policies at colleges across the country at stake.

©Rick Friedman
Harvard College Freshman Convocation September 1,2015.

What exactly is affirmative action, and why is it so controversial? Affirmative action is an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination. It began way back in the 1960s, when it was first introduced by President John F. Kennedy. In U.S. higher education, these policies may give students from minority groups an advantage in the college admissions process.

The trial against Harvard is not the first time that affirmative action has been challenged in court. The goal of advocates who back the trial is to ultimately reverse the 1978 Supreme Court case that upheld college admissions’ right to consider race when evaluating applicants. However, the court ruled that colleges couldn’t set quotas (limited or fixed numbers) for racial groups.

The Supreme Court’s most recent ruling on affirmative action was in 2016. Abigail N. Fisher, a Caucasian female, filed suit against the University of Texas, claiming that the university’s use of race as a deciding factor in admissions decisions was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The university argued that its use of race was for the purpose of attaining greater student diversity. The district court ruled in favor of the University of Texas, saying that race-conscious admissions strategies are justified if they are proven to increase student body diversity.

The Trial

The main parties are Students for Fair Admissions, a group of Asian-American students who were rejected by Harvard. The organization is led by conservative activist Edward Blum, who believes that race should not considered as a deciding factor in any aspect of life. The defendant is Harvard, but other Ivy League universities have backed the school, saying that a ruling against Harvard would negatively affect student diversity.

The trial began on Monday, with its first witness being the most long awaited: Harvard’s Dead of Admissions William Fitzsimmons. The topic of interest was the university’s outreach to less populated areas of the country. Harvard sends application invitations to students who do well on a practice SAT exam called the PSAT. Documents show that the cutoff score to receive the invitation for Asian women was 1350, for Asian men; 1380, while white students only needed a 1310. When questioned, Fitzsimmons fell back on the desire to have a diverse class of students and get Harvard on the map.

Other reports also suggest that Harvard has consciously disregarded evidence that its admissions process has discriminated against Asian-Americans. Harvard has denied all accusations of discrimination and has defended its “holistic” admissions process which considers race among many other factors. The university claims it does not set racial quotas.

On the eve of the trial, supporters held dueling rallies in Boston and on Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. Many of the supporters were Asian-Americans, who are divided on the case. Some feel that they are being used by conservatives to abolish affirmative action, and survey results show that most Asian-Americans support affirmative action.

Photo from The Atlantic.

The outcome of this trial may result in a broad court ruling on the issue, or in a decision that only affects Harvard. If the case goes to the Supreme Court, it could drastically change the admissions process.

How the case plays out will address an idea that has been controversial throughout American history: is equal treatment the same thing as fair treatment? The question is whether it is fair for underrepresented groups to be treated differently than other applicants due to the discrimination they may have faced.