Trial beginning Monday will examine how the elite institution uses race to shape its student body; decision could upend practices of other colleges
This year, 42,749 students applied to Harvard College, and only 1,962 were admitted. How Harvard decides who makes the cut has long been a mystery.
That’s about to change. A trial beginning Monday in Boston federal court will examine how the elite institution uses race to shape its student body. It will force Harvard to spill details about its admissions practices.
The case has transfixed the world of higher education—both for the peek it provides into a process cloaked in secrecy, and the prospect that the court decision will upend the admissions practices of other colleges as well.
A lawsuit accuses Harvard University of illegally discriminating against Asian-American applicants by holding them to a higher standard than students of other races. Harvard denies the accusation, saying race is just one of a complex matrix of factors it considers before handing out its coveted acceptances.
Harvard uses what it calls a holistic approach to admissions, considering not only an applicant’s academic record and test scores but also activities, formative experiences and personal attributes. The model is widely used by other top colleges.
Elite colleges, 60% of which consider race in admissions, say the trial’s outcome could threaten their autonomy to craft undergraduate classes. If forced to exclude race from admissions considerations, many schools say, their student demographics would change significantly.
For years, Harvard has fought against the public release of documents showing the inner workings of its admissions office. Court filings in advance of the trial offer tantalizing details about how Harvard rates prospective students and how it considers race. The trial is expected to shed light on the magnitude of admission preferences for athletes, children of alumni and applicants with connections to major donors.
Among the more controversial aspects of the admissions process: Each applicant receives a “personal rating” reflecting, in part, an analysis of personality traits such as humor, courage and kindness.
The plaintiffs claim that Harvard’s own data show Asian-Americans received the highest academic and extracurricular ratings of any racial group, but the lowest personal ratings. In court filings, Harvard has attributed lower Asian-American personal scores to “unobservable factors” that come through in teacher recommendations, applicants’ essays and interviews, which are also factored into the rating.
The lawsuit seeks to ban Harvard from considering race in future admissions decisions. It was brought by a nonprofit group, led by a conservative legal strategist, whose members include Asian-Americans rejected by Harvard.
Over the past 40 years, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that universities can consider an applicant’s race to promote the educational benefits that flow from diverse campuses, including better preparing students for the workforce.
The presidents of Yale University, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others, have filed a brief in support of Harvard, arguing that prohibiting colleges from weighing race in admissions would represent an “extraordinary infringement on universities’ academic freedom.”
The Justice Department has weighed in on the other side, filing a “statement of interest” supporting the plaintiffs. It launched its own civil-rights investigation last year into whether Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The Education and Justice Departments also recently opened a similar investigation into Yale.
A senior Justice Department official said the investigations are a priority for its Civil Rights Division. Harvard’s lawyers have called the government’s actions a “thinly veiled attack” on Supreme Court precedent and “so outside ordinary practices.”
California banned its public universities from considering race in admissions two decades ago. Since then, University of California, Berkeley has grown by roughly 8,800 undergraduates but has about 275 fewer black students. At the private California Institute of Technology, which says academics are the most important admissions criterion, 43% of the undergraduate population last year was Asian-American.
Harvard said in a court filing that eliminating affirmative action would give the biggest boost to white students, increasing their share in a recent admitted class to 48%, from 40%. The share of Asian-Americans would rise to 27%, from 24%, while African-Americans would drop to 6%, from 14%, and Hispanics to 9%, from 14%.
The lawsuit was brought in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit run by Edward Blum. Mr. Blum has funded other challenges to affirmative action, including a Supreme Court case involving Abigail Fisher, a white applicant rejected from the University of Texas at Austin.
The Harvard trial is expected to last three weeks. U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs will decide whether the school’s admissions practices, which have considered race since at least the 1970s, violate federal civil-rights law. Her decision is likely to be appealed, possibly to the Supreme Court.
Mr. Blum’s legal team includes four former clerks of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and several members of the Federalist Society, a network of conservative legal scholars. Harvard’s lawyers include Seth Waxman, who served as U.S. solicitor general under President Bill Clinton and has argued 80 cases before the Supreme Court.
In lengthy court filings this summer, both sides previewed their trial evidence. Harvard sought to keep the material under seal, citing concerns about the privacy of applicants. The school said disclosing too much about its process would embolden paid college consultants to advise clients on how to conform to the perceived criteria, to the disadvantage of low-income applicants.
Harvard faces four claims at trial, the most significant of which accuses the school of intentionally discriminating against Asian-American applicants.
A key witness will be William Fitzsimmons, 74, who has been admissions dean since 1986. A former star Harvard hockey player, he received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the school. He is considered an architect of the holistic review process, which judges applicants by how they will contribute to the overall class.
The plaintiffs have accused Mr. Fitzsimmons and other Harvard officials of ignoring internal Harvard studies from 2013 that found being Asian-American decreases an applicant’s chance of admission and concluded Asian-Americans would account for 43% of the admitted class if based on academics alone. The plaintiffs allege in a court filing that Harvard “killed the investigation and buried the reports” instead of probing further.
Harvard said the reports weren’t shared widely because they were based on a preliminary analysis that didn’t take into account nonacademic factors. The reports weighed only 20 factors, Harvard said, compared with 200 factors considered in the school’s data analysis in connection with the lawsuit.
Another focus for the plaintiffs is the role of race in the “personal rating,” one of many scores applicants receive in the admissions process. The personal rating is the only category in which white applicants scored significantly better than Asian-Americans, the plaintiffs say, arguing that it reflects negative racial stereotypes. Harvard says admissions officers don’t consider race in the personal rating.
Mr. Fitzsimmons is expected to face cross-examination by plaintiffs’ lawyers about the gap between Asian-Americans and whites in the personal rating, and about the 2013 reports.
The trial also is likely to delve into Harvard admissions preferences known as “tips.”
According to an economist’s report that analyzed Harvard admissions data on behalf of the plaintiffs, students with at least one parent who attended Harvard had an acceptance rate of 33.6%, compared with 5.9% for nonlegacy students. Nearly half of children of Harvard faculty and staff were admitted, and 86% of recruited athletes were, the report said.
The plaintiffs contended in pretrial filings the preferences overwhelmingly benefit white applicants. Removing preferences for race, legacy and athletics would result in a 50% increase in the number of Asian-American admits, the plaintiffs’ expert said.
The trial will hinge in part on the competing interpretations of Harvard’s admissions data. Economists hired by each side used six years of data to create regression models that examined how much race affected the likelihood of admission. Their findings conflict because each side used different variables for its models.
Former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, two Nobel laureates and more than a dozen other economists submitted a brief supporting the analysis of Harvard’s hired economist, who found being Asian-American had no negative effect on the likelihood of admission. A different group of economists from the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University and other schools supported the plaintiffs’ analysis.
The plaintiffs also accuse Harvard of setting racial quotas, pointing to “one-pagers” that administrators receive throughout the admissions cycle, which compare statistics on the admitted classes from the current and prior year by race, gender and other categories.
Asian-Americans accounted for between 18% and 21% of admitted students for each class that graduated from 2014 through 2017, while Hispanic and African-American students each accounted for 10% to 12% over the same period.
Harvard said in a court filing it uses one-pagers to estimate what share of admitted students will enroll, and that the share of Asian-Americans in the admitted class has risen 29% since 2010.
The plaintiffs allege race plays such a decisive role in the admissions prospects of Hispanic and African-American applicants that removing all racial preferences would increase the number of Asian-American admissions by 40%. Harvard says other factors, such as alumni interviews and intended major, play a more significant role in the likelihood of admission than race does.
The plaintiffs also say Harvard hasn’t followed the Supreme Court’s requirement to seriously consider race-neutral alternatives before resorting to affirmative action, arguing the school could achieve racial diversity by expanding financial aid, reducing legacy preferences and giving more weight to socioeconomic status.
Harvard says no combination of race-neutral methods would yield the same level of diversity and academic excellence. To admit the same number of African-Americans without considering race, Harvard says, the school would have to give more weight to socioeconomic status than to academic qualifications.
Eight current and former Harvard students, including Asian-Americans, are expected to testify at trial on behalf of Harvard about how racial diversity improved their college experiences.
One of those students, Thang Quoc Diep, a Vietnamese-American Harvard senior, asked for his admissions file to be released to show he wasn’t penalized for his race. Mr. Diep’s SAT score was lower than the average for admitted applicants, but admissions officers called him a “clear admit,” citing his intellectual originality and leadership.
The plaintiffs don’t intend to call any Asian-American students as witnesses, sparking criticism from some advocacy groups that the lawsuit is using Asian-Americans to press for a policy shift that would benefit white students most.
These advocates argue eliminating affirmative action will exacerbate the effect of some preferences, such as legacy admissions, that primarily help white applicants. “You’re really going after the wrong culprit,” said Nicole Gon Ochi, a lawyer for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which filed a brief supporting Harvard.
Others say Mr. Blum, the man behind the Harvard suit, is tapping into a growing concern among Asian-American parents. “We’re fighting for our own children’s interests,” said Yukong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, which has filed complaints with federal agencies against several Ivy League schools. “How can somebody say we’re being used?”