Schooled Reporting on education

Battling racial bias at Harvard

Education | A lawsuit challenges the Ivy League school’s limits on Asian-American applicants
by Leigh Jones
Posted 6/20/18, 03:53 pm

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.

Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia speaking at a teachers rally in Phoenix in April.

What comes around goes around

The nation’s largest teachers union got a taste of its own medicine earlier this month when its own staffers threatened to strike to demand pay raises. The National Education Association employs about 450 people at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and 280 participate in a union: the National Education Association Staff Organization. They cited the rising cost of living in the nation’s capital, contrasted with stagnant salaries, among their grievances.

This week, the association announced it had reached a deal with its employer, avoiding the threatened walkout. The NEA is trying to cut expenses ahead of an expected Supreme Court loss in Janus v. AFSCME, a case testing the rights of unions to demand money from non-members to cover collective bargaining costs. The union estimates it will lose $50 million in revenue and 300,000 members if the high court rules in favor of teachers challenging the policy.

NEA representatives insisted its employees needed to consider the organization’s long-term viability and limited resources—arguments it regularly dismisses when made by lawmakers in reference to education spending. —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times Associated Press/Photo by Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times Ryan Burke (left) and his attorney Philip Masorti outside the Centre County Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte, Pa., on June 13.

Taking responsibility

After months of wrangling over charges and culpability in the death of a 19-year-old fraternity pledge last year, the first of 15 Penn State fraternity brothers charged in the case admitted guilt last week. Ryan Burke, 21, pleaded guilty to nine charges, including four counts of hazing, related to his role in the incidents that led to Timothy Piazza’s death. Burke gave Piazza a handle of vodka—about 60 fluid ounces—during a party at Beta Theta Pi’s off-campus house.

A judge previously dismissed charges of furnishing liquor to minors and reckless endangerment. The state attorney general withdrew aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, and simple assault charges initially filed against Burke and others. Piazza died of internal and head injuries after falling down a flight of stairs. None of the other men at the party sought medical attention for him. Fourteen other fraternity members will go to trial in August. Piazza’s family urged them to follow Burke’s example and accept responsibility for their actions. —L.J.

Test-free at UC

The University of Chicago will no longer require undergraduate applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, beginning with the class of 2023. It’s the first major research university to adopt a policy already in place at some liberal arts colleges. The move is designed to make it easier for low-income applicants, and those from underrepresented communities, to get in. —L.J.

Take that, cheaters

Cheating is so bad in Algeria, where students this month will sit for their national high school exams, that the government is blocking access to the internet throughout the entire country. Officials settled on the draconian measure after massive online leaks of test questions and answers during the last two years. As an extra precaution, officials also ordered cell phone jammers installed at all testing centers. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Fri, 06/22/2018 01:54 pm

    Fascinating contrast and parallels in stories.  Harvard is sued because they are racist, the NEA just wants more money, because they want to get in on the greed party, and now colleges are going to stop forcing the poor wittle "snowflakes" to take tests, so their wittle feewings won't get hurt if they aren't given a complete college education without ever having to think exclusively, or ponder an original thought or action.  Did I miss anything?