Rejected applicants suing Harvard for discrimination against Asian Americans filed court documents on Friday that contained a variety of troubling allegations. The documents allege that the university conducted an internal investigation into its admissions policies in 2013 and found evidence of bias against Asian American applicants but decided not to publish or act on the results.
The filing also contains a study based on 160,000 student records apparently demonstrating that admissions officers consistently rated Asian American applicants the lowest on personality traits like “positive personality,” likability, and being “widely respected.” The study, conducted by Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, concluded that Asian Americans scored the highest on admissions criteria like grades, extracurricular activities, and standardized tests, but that the low personality rankings often overpowered those factors when it came to final admissions decisions.
A coalition of Asian American groups initially brought the civil rights complaint against Harvard in 2015. The Department of Justice bolstered the suit when it announced in November that it would be investigating Harvard. Edward Blum, who is widely credited with orchestrating this suit, was also the mastermind behind the 2016 Supreme Court case involving Abigail Fisher, a white student who alleged that the University of Texas’s affirmative action policies had discriminated against her because of her race. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the university’s practices were constitutional.
It’s tough to take a side in this most recent case. I understand the fears that Asian American teens and their families harbor around affirmative action. I felt the same way when I applied to a prestigious college and cynically tried to avoid the so-called “Asian penalty.” Based on his history of litigation, though, it’s clear that Blum is exploiting these fears for the benefit of white applicants. If he succeeds in outlawing race-conscious factors, then people of color who are already dramatically underrepresented in higher education will further fall behind in an admissions game that often advances racial privilege. At the end of the day, it would be ruinous if Harvard lost the case and the courts banned affirmative action.
Yet, the university is far from blameless. Even though lawyers for the defense are quibbling with the study’s methodology, the findings suggest that there is a healthy dose of implicit bias influencing the admissions process. The allegations that Harvard decided to bury the findings from the 2013 internal investigation are perhaps more damning, because they are indicative of a distaste for transparency that will only serve to exacerbate suspicions that admissions officers are set on restricting the number of Asian American students. It could well be the case that allegations of bias against Asian Americans are overstated, but we won’t know that for sure unless Harvard and other universities are more open about their admissions processes.
Even if Harvard were to say that its admissions processes may overlook Asian Americans in some key ways, it does not necessarily mean that the university would then have to do away with race-conscious admissions. There are plenty of ways to address fears about discrimination against Asian Americans that don’t involve eliminating or enfeebling affirmative action to the detriment of applicants of color. In fact, Harvard’s internal investigation seems to have hinted at some of these solutions.
The New York Times outlines the findings from that investigation:
University officials did concede that its 2013 internal review found that if Harvard considered only academic achievement, the Asian-American share of the class would rise to 43 percent from the actual 19 percent. After accounting for Harvard’s preference for recruited athletes and legacy applicants, the proportion of whites went up, while the share of Asian-Americans fell to 31 percent. Accounting for extracurricular and personal ratings, the share of whites rose again, and Asian-Americans fell to 26 percent.
This should have been a clear sign that certain aspects of the admissions process besides affirmative action deserve more scrutiny. Indeed, legacies and recruiting for certain sports, such as lacrosse, overwhelmingly favor white and economically privileged applicants. There’s also evidence that socioeconomic class should be a bigger factor. As Harvard’s report reads, “While we find that low income students clearly receive a ‘tip’ in the admissions process, our descriptive analysis and regression models also shows that the tip for legacies and athletes is larger and that there are demographic groups that have negative effects.”
Yet, Harvard’s unwillingness to accept any evidence that Asian Americans may be at a disadvantage prevents us from having an open conversation about ways to address the issue that don’t undermine the good that affirmative action does for applicants of color. It’s a shame that it took a legal assault on a vital policy to finally gain some insight and transparency.