Efforts to expunge racial discrimination in higher education usually focus on increasing the number of minority groups on campus, but not at Harvard.
The nation’s premier Ivy League school has spent decades trying to limit the number of Asian-American students on campus, an effort critics say effectively blocks them from future influence in the powerful U.S. public and private institutions where Harvard’s graduates often land.
For the last four years, the university has fought a legal challenge brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a group that wants to do away with race-based admissions policies at all levels of higher education. Harvard insists it has the right to engineer a diverse student body, which means making sure it admits more of some races and less of others. But in filings submitted to a federal court in Boston last week, the school also claimed being Asian-American does not make it harder to get in, with a University of California economist hired to study Harvard’s admissions practices finding the effect of being Asian-American was “statistically indistinguishable from zero.”
But a similar analysis done by an economist at Duke University for Students for Fair Admissions came to a dramatically different conclusion. Under Harvard’s current admissions system, which considers academic, extracurricular, athletic, and personal factors related to each applicant, Asian-American students made up 22 percent of those admitted to the school during the last six years. If Harvard had only relied on academic performance, Asian-Americans would have made up more than half the number of students getting acceptance letters.
This isn’t the first time Harvard administrators have tried to deflect claims of bias against Asian-Americans. In 2013, the school commissioned an internal study in its own defense, but the conclusions didn’t help its case. The report found that based on the number of that year’s applicants, Asian-Americans should have made up 26 percent of the admitted class. Instead, they totaled just 19 percent.
Documents like that internal study, which were made public through the lawsuit, give remarkable insight into Harvard’s secretive admissions process. A panel of 40 people ultimately decides who gets in after ranking each applicant in those four categories. Asian-Americans routinely get lower scores in the highly subjective “personal qualities” category, leading to their lower rates of acceptance.
That strategy, known in practice if not in detail, until now, has forced many Asian-American applicants to lie about their race, a “blatant injustice” that should outrage any serious civil rights advocate, notes Heritage Foundation scholars Mike Gonzalez and Joseph Natali.
“Aside from the fact that discrimination on the basis of race is patently illegal, it should be noted that schools such as Harvard often function as ‘pipelines’ to positions of influence and political power,” they wrote. “As such, direct attempts to limit the number of Asian-Americans accepted into Harvard also are indirect attempts to limit their influence in the public sphere. Rather than being inclusive and fostering diversity, Harvard has decided to intentionally hide policies that play into a long history of political oppression of minorities.”
But should the courts force Harvard, a private institution, to change its admissions policy? Christian universities could (and surely will) face a similar challenge over attempts to ensure their student bodies reflect their values, not racially but spiritually. If the government can dictate Harvard’s policy, it can dictate Wheaton College’s as well.
Harvard’s policy might not be fair, but perhaps the best solution is for Asian-American students to pursue their academic careers elsewhere, excel, and show Harvard what it missed.