The Harvard Lawsuit & What it Means for the Future of College Admissions

Jillian Breen

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The decision for the 5 year battle against affirmative action has finally been reached. Judge Burroughs has ruled that Harvard in fact does not intentionally discriminate against Asian American students and that their admission process is ‘legally sound’.

For those who aren’t caught up, Harvard was taken to court by anti-affirmative action group SFFA for intentionally discriminating against Asian Americans and looking at them as ‘personal scores’. A look inside the minds of Harvard’s admissions office proved that some derogatory and not-so-favorable language was used towards their Asian American applicants in their admission files. These files were looked over tirelessly by lawyers and journalists deciphering the process of what makes a student deserving enough to attend the prestigious university. 

Harvard disclosed they evaluate over 200 factors for each applicant and all of those combined makes up whether or not that student is deserving to attend. These factors can include whether your parents attended an Ivy League, what percentage of your neighborhood speaks english, and my personal favorite– ‘Normalized Academic Index quadratic multiplied by indicator for positive normalized academic index’. Yes, that is real. 

Now, those factors are more environmental, having to do with the applicants parents and neighborhoods. Technically speaking, those factors are out of an applicant’s control. A student can’t control where they grew up or how educated their parents are. However, what a student can control is themselves, or their personality. 

The SFFA’s main problem with Harvard’s admission process is their ‘personal rating”, which is their admission officer’s guideline for how to judge a person based on their leadership qualities, integrity, kindness, etc. These qualities are judged through the applicants essay, supplements, teacher recommendations, and alumni interviews. The issue stems from their incredibly vague and simplistic way of rating applicants personalities on a 1-6 scale with 1 being ‘outstanding’ and 6 being ‘worrisome personal qualities’. 

The reason the SFFA have a bone to pick with this specific rating system is because statistically Asian Americans applying to Harvard have the highest academic and extracurricular ratings, yet the lowest personal rating. 

Looking back at a 1990 report summary for an Education Department investigation into possible racial discrimination determined Harvard is not discriminating against applicants for admission, but many comments left by admission officers on students applications were feeding into racial stereotypes. For instance one officer wrote “He’s quite and, of course, wants to be a doctor…” and an interviewer wrote “… he comes across as the hard worker rather than the really outstanding potential scholar.”

Now although those comments come from a 1990 report, Harvard is still being accused of using these kinds of comments. Typically describing most of their Asian American applicants as “smart and hardworking yet uninteresting and indistinguishable.” Not a very good look.

As the trial has come to an end, Judge Burroughs decided we are not at a point fully past equal opportunity, therefore affirmative action is still a very necessary part of the college admission process. “Diversity will foster the tolerance, acceptance and understanding that will ultimately make race conscious admissions obsolete.” Judge Burroughs wrote. 

Judge Burroughs did have some critics of Harvard’s process, stating it was “not perfect.” She suggested Harvard’s admission officers take more implicit bias courses and become more aware of some of the biases they might not be aware of. She also suggested the officers should be made aware of significant statistical disparities related to race. 

Many schools across the country have backed up the SFFA and are undergoing some changes to their admission process, keeping this entire lawsuit and the motivations behind it in mind. The college admissions process is a very subjective and complicated process, and Judge Burroughs isn’t wrong when she stated the courts would not take down a very fine admission program just because it could “do better”. It can do a lot better, and so can many schools. This lawsuit was necessary in shedding light on the potential unconscious biases many admission officers might have and not be aware of. In terms of the future of college admissions, it seems as though many schools will be attempting to look at applicants for just their accomplishments with race separate, not connecting the two like Harvard has done.