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Affirmative Action on Trial at Harvard

Affirmative Action on Trial at Harvard

Lukas Hoffman

In the last month, a new affirmative action case has been brought to trial over Harvard University’s admission policies. The lawsuit was brought to trial by Students for Fair Admissions on the behalf of Asian-American students whom Harvard has allegedly systematically discriminated against. The main concern is Harvard’s tendency to rate Asian-Americans as having less personality and as being unlikeable. The university denies these claims, but a variety of evidence and statistical evidence has shown averse treatment towards the group.

The case centers around Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which states that schools receiving federal funds cannot discriminate against students. Students for Fair Admissions believes that Harvard unfairly holds Asian students to a higher standard, that it unlawfully uses racial balancing to maintain certain percentages of racial groups, that it uses race as a deciding factor in admissions instead of a “plus-factor,” and that it chooses race as a selector over other possible categories for diversity. Harvard rebuts these assertions, claiming instead that their racial balancing works to create greater diversity and a “vibrant educational environment.”

In one instance of alleged discrimination, Students for Fair Admissions gave the example of letters sent to high school students in Sparse County. The letters are based on the PSAT scores of the students, with those earning at least a 1310 receiving a letter. However, for Asian male students, a 1380 was required to be sent a letter by Harvard, a small but powerful example of Harvard’s higher standards for Asian students.

Harvard maintains a strict racial quota, and accepts a similar percentage of each ethnicity per year. Currently, the admitted class of 2022 was roughly 23 percent Asian, with African-Americans at around 15 percent and Latinos at 12 percent. White students comprise approximately 50 percent of the admitted student body. If this case succeeds, it will remove Harvard’s race balancing system and threaten affirmative action as a whole.

While the three-week trial in Boston ended on Nov. 2, both sides have until Dec. 19 to submit their respective facts and justifications regarding the case. External student groups siding with Harvard have until January 9 to finalize their claims before the case moves forward. Judge Allison D. Burroughs, who is presiding over the case, has set final arguments for Feb. 13. After the ruling, the losing party can appeal to the First US Court of Appeals, and then to the Supreme Court. Although recent affirmative action cases have resulted in support for schools, the deciding votes in many were cast by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has since been replaced by more conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In effect, this could lead to a reversal of affirmative action that has been promoted over the years.

Recent surveys have shown that the majority of Asian Americans are in support of affirmative action. Harvard has numerous Asian supporters who are staunchly defending the school over its admissions policy, even as the case has brought forth other, more specific instances of discrimination, such as separate lawsuits filed by Chinese-American students, who feel they have been singled out by a number of higher education institutions.

As such a tense case moves forward, there is sure to be much debate from both sides. A final decision may not come for months, or even years, if the case moves into the upper courts. If Students for Fair Admissions manages to overturn Harvard’s policy, it could mean a change in the way admissions policies function nationwide. Whether for better or for worse, a difference will be made as a result of the case.


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