Is Harvard bias against Asian Americans?

Digital Originals

Supporters attend the "Rally for the American Dream - Equal Education Rights for All" in BostonSupporters attend the “Rally for the American Dream – Equal Education Rights for All,” ahead of the start of the trial in a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Is one of the top private schools in the U.S. systematically discriminating against Asians and Asian Americans? That’s what a trial taking place in Boston, Massachusetts is trying to figure out.

The lawsuit, brought by non-profit group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in 2014, represents an anonymous group of Asian Americans who were rejected for admission by Harvard University.

The case claims that Harvard has, for decades, unfairly discriminated against Asians applying to the Ivy League school.

But some critics, including civil rights groups AND members of the Asian community, believe the lawsuit is dangerous and the plaintiffs are using this case as a step towards dismantling affirmative action entirely.

It’s a case where the outcome could affect the future of affirmative action and other diversity policies in the United States.

According to Harvard’s website, out of all ethnic minorities admitted to the class of 2022, Asian Americans clearly represent the largest group – nearly four times the percent of Asians in United States.


Screen capture of Harvard’s ethnic diversity chart for the class of 2022.

So why do the plaintiffs in this case claim Harvard’s affirmative action policy discriminates against Asian Americans?

Among evidence presented at trial, internal documents from Harvard that show that if the school had based admissions on academics alone – ie, grades and SAT scores – Asian-Americans would comprise up to 43 percent of the freshman class.

The study also showed that Asians ranked higher in extracurricular activities AND in their interviews with alumni compared to all other groups.


But, the same report also showed that, when other criteria are included – such as athletics and legacy status – that number goes down drastically for Asians while admission rates for other minorities goes up.

Harvard’s own newspaper, The Crimson reported that “from 1995 to 2013, Asian-American applicants earned the highest average SAT score of any racial group that applied to the school. In that same time period, they also saw the lowest acceptance rate of any racial group.”

HARVARD: Average SAT Scores by race

At the heart of this case is Harvard’s “personal ratings” system.

Assigned to prospective students by the Admissions office, these ratings measure character traits such as leadership, grit, courage, and likeability.

In those personal ratings, Asian Americans were consistently given a lower score than all other groups applying.

It’s this factor, the plaintiffs claim, that demonstrates clear and intentional racial bias.

But many aren’t buying it, and say the plaintiffs are using Asians as a wedge to dimantle affirmative action across the nation.

On the ACLU podcast, Jin Hee Lee, Deputy Director of Litigation at NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, explained the how the racial bias suit could have negative effects on diversity as a whole.

“I find this particular strategy to be particularly troublesome and somewhat nefarious because of what the plaintiffs are trying to do is try to pit racial groups against each other – as if diversity in higher education is a zero sum game. That somehow benefiting one group would somehow harm another, as opposed to the reality that diversity in colleges benefits everyone, including white students.”

A major source of concern has been ‘who’ is spearheading the lawsuit.

Edward Blum at a demonstration supporting Students for Fair Admissions in Harvard Square, October 14, 2018.

Edward Blum at a demonstration supporting Students for Fair Admissions in Harvard Square, October 14, 2018.

The plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, are led by conservative political strategist Edward Blum. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because this isn’t his first high profile case concerning race.

Blum has been at the fore of more than two dozen cases challenging affirmative action, voting protections, and other civil rights laws in the U.S..

HARVARD: Lyndon Johnson greets Martin Luther King

President Lyndon Johnson congratulates civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. at the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Among them was the 2013 Supreme Court case – Shelby County v. Holder – that overturned Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Considered by many to be a cornerstone of civil rights legislation, Section 4 required states with a history of voter suppression to get clearance from Federal Court or the Justice Department before making any changes to their election laws.

More recently, in 2016, he brought another case to the Supreme Court that claimed a white student named Abigail Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas because of racial diversity quotas at the school.

That case failed when her race couldn’t be proven to be the deciding factor in her rejection.

HARVARD: Abigail Fisher and Edward Blum

Abigail Fisher and Edward Blum speak outside the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.

However, Students for Fair Admissions claims the case against Harvard has nothing to do with affirmative action policies.

In opening arguments October 15, their lawyer Adam Mortara stated:

“The future of affirmative action in college admissions is not on trial. This trial is about what Harvard has done and is doing to Asian-American applicants, and how far Harvard has gone in its zeal to use race in the admissions process.”

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the Department of Justice began a probe into Harvard’s admission policies earlier this year and in August issued a “statement of interest” supporting the lawsuit.

“[Harvard] engages in unlawful racial balancing; and has never seriously considered race-neutral alternatives in its more than 45 years of using race to make admissions decisions.”

William R. Fitzsimmons

William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid, outside the Office of Admissions at Harvard University. (CREDIT: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard University)

But during the trial, Harvard’s Dean of Admissions, responded to the overall claim, saying his office seeks out applicants from “all backgrounds, especially those with disadvantaged economic backgrounds.”

He added that diversity is more than just race, pointing to the University’s efforts to recruit from rural America and other areas neglected by college recruiters.

Earlier in the year, Sixteen of the top U.S. universities, including all seven Ivy League schools, submitted a joint legal brief in support of Harvard, stating they “speak with one voice to emphasize the profound importance of a diverse student body for their educational mission.”

The NAACP, the American Council on Education, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have also filed briefs of support.

Since the lawsuit was announced, many Asian Americans on social media have shown their support for Harvard and affirmative action – using hashtags, such as #NOTYOURWEDGE and #DEFENDDIVERSITY.

HARVARD: Protests against SFFA

Students in Cambridge, MA protest against the SFFA lawsuit against Harvard. (CREDIT: ASAM News)

When the trial opened on October 15, groups both for and against the lawsuit were present outside the courthouse.

If the court rules against Harvard – it may only hand down a narrow decision that only applies to Harvard and its specific methodology for admissions.

However, if the court rules broadly against race-conscious admissions, many fear it could set the stage for eliminating affirmative action entirely.

Judge Allison D. Burroughs is expected to rule in early November. But, whatever the decision, it’s expected to face appeals.

If so, the final word on this case will most likely be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.