Harvard admissions lawsuit raises thorny questions


Harvard students walk by Widener library. Harvard is the defendant in a lawsuit regarding its admissions practices. (CC BY 2.0)

A recent lawsuit brought against Harvard University by the group Students for Fair Admissions touches on a sensitive topic in today’s politically charged world: SFFA alleges that Harvard’s admissions process systematically discriminates against Asian-Americans.

Universities have been allowed to consider race as a factor in admissions since the Supreme Court’s 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision, which upheld affirmative action, the practice of giving certain groups special treatment in an effort to redress perceived inequities. However, the Court also set strict guidelines for how race could be considered, and outlawed the rigid racial quotas that were at the heart of the Bakke case. Still, the issue of affirmative action remains highly controversial today, and the current Harvard lawsuit is only the tip of the iceberg.

Ivy League universities are notoriously tight-lipped about their admissions process due to concerns that revealing too much would allow applicants to “game” the system. However, the judge on the current case, Allison D. Burroughs, has ordered that hundreds of extremely sensitive admission documents be revealed to the plaintiff and redacted versions be made available to the public.

SFFA points to the relatively constant admission rate for Asian-American applicants to Harvard, around 17 percent each year, as evidence of racial discrimination. Additionally, SFFA claims that Harvard’s admissions officers often assigned Asian-American applicants a lower “personality” and “likability” rating than other racial and ethnic groups, hurting their chances of admission.

Harvard has set up a dedicated website with information regarding the ongoing lawsuit.

“Harvard’s lawful admissions policies consider many factors, including race, to evaluate each applicant as a whole person with the goal of seeking excellence, expanding opportunity, and bringing together profoundly different students to live with and learn from one another,” the site reads.

It also faults SFFA’s statistical model, claiming that it “omits entire swaths of the applicant pool (such as recruited athletes or applicants whose parents attended Harvard) to achieve a deliberate and pre-assumed outcome.”

The site goes on to describe the Herculean task that admissions officers face each year, with an overwhelming influx of highly qualified applicants. Admissions officers cannot base their decisions on grades and test scores alone, it claims — there would be more far more extraordinarily qualified students than there are slots available for them. The difficulty is best illustrated by the numbers: of the nearly 40,000 applicants to Harvard, more than 8,000 had a perfect GPA, 3,400 had a perfect SAT Math score, and 2,700 had a perfect SAT Verbal score. Harvard usually admits less than 2,000 freshmen each year.

“Building a class solely of applicants with perfect test scores and GPA would rob students of opportunities to learn from those different than themselves,”  guidance counselor Aaron Murphy said. “It can be beneficial to increase the diversity of a student body, because the world is diverse. You do not want to be exposed to just one type of person.”

Murphy also endorsed increased outreach from universities as a method for attaining the goal of diversity.

“A lot of times, students who don’t know (about college opportunities) are the ones who are kind of left out,” he said. “They feel it’s such a far-off goal.”

The Harvard case is currently working its way through the Massachusetts District Court, but is likely destined for the Supreme Court, social studies teacher Elizabeth Russell said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the case went further up the appellate courts (to the Supreme Court), which makes (the lawsuit) even more interesting because the court could be split 4-4 without a ninth justice being confirmed,” Russell said. The court currently has only eight justices after Anthony Kennedy retired this summer.

The case has a tentative court date set for October, but no matter the decision, it will have repercussions for decades to come.