Harvard Wins Affirmative Action Lawsuit, For Now

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In one of the most significant rulings on social policy in recent history, Federal District Court Judge Allison Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard University and their affirmative action acceptance process. The decision which was issued by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts is a major win for affirmative action supporters, at least on the surface. However, the plaintiffs in the case plan to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court and with a 5-4 conservative majority, it is more than plausible that affirmative action and years of legal precedent may be overturned.

The case began in 2014, when an anonymous group of Asian applicants known as the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed a lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued that Harvard University is

“employing racially and ethnically discriminatory policies and procedures in administering the undergraduate admissions program””


that are biased against applicants of certain races. Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard has mainly focused on whether Harvard University infringed on the Civil Rights Act when they denied Asian Americans in their admissions process. It is crucial that we understand the court case is not a direct question of affirmative action, however, if four Supreme Court Justices agree to hear the case, affirmative action and the long history surrounding the issue will undoubtedly be contested as there is overlap with the Civil Rights Act.

During early testimony proceedings in the fall of 2018, the plaintiffs argued that the only way for Asian Americans to receive equal access to Harvard under their admissions process is to ban the question of race on their applications. Harvard’s current system of admittance, the plaintiffs contend, is unconstitutional because of its inherit racial basis. In response, Harvard University has stated that they use a holistic admissions process that does not discriminate against Asian American students in any way. Instead, a diverse student body is a legitimate objective for an institution of higher learning, making Harvard’s actions justifiable. The courts have sided with Harvard thus far.

There has also been criticism regarding the head of Students for Fair Admissions: Edward Blum. Blum has been notorious for fighting laws regarding affirmative action and racial discrimination. Most notably, Blum was a strategist for the Supreme Court case Fisher v University of Texas in 2013 that upheld academic institutions’ right to use their admissions process to create a racially diverse campus in a 7-1 decision. He was also instrumental in convincing the court to redraw several majority-minority electoral districts in Texas in 1995 and striking down large portions of the Voters Rights Act in 2013.

It can be assumed that Blum is using Students for Fair Admissions to once again challenge a major goal of the modern liberal agenda by reducing the impact of affirmative action in post-secondary education. Unlike his previous attempts, Blum will argue his case with a larger conservative majority. Blum has also filed suit against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on similar grounds of racial discrimination and threatens to continue his work until affirmative action is overturned. Some critics have contended that there is irony to an organization of predominantly Asian American students led by a 66-year-old white man. Regardless of my opinion on Edward Blum, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard will continue to raise questions about the need for affirmative action in education.

The case has also posed questions about how much focus should be given to academic merit in the admissions process. On one side of the debate is the ideology that race has no significance in our academic institutions. Instead diversity of ideas, intellectual interests, and experiences should be the primary focus in the admissions process. The inverse of this claim is the ideology that race is not only a fair distinction when considering applicants, but it is required for a flourishing community. It seems that there is diminishing middle ground as the subject has become increasingly polarizing. The answer certainly lies in what we value in our education system.

This debate comes at a time when data regarding Harvard University’s admissions process shows stereotypical roles for Asian applicants. Harvard has three categories when considering applicants: academic success, extracurricular involvement, and personal qualities. Asian American students tend to outperform Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic peers in the first two categories. However, admissions staff at Harvard artificially lower personal qualities of Asian applicants to get fewer Asian students in their classes.

From the data that Harvard was forced to release, economist Peter Arcidiacono concluded that with the same application, Asian students have a 25% chance of admittance to Harvard compared to a 32% chance if white, 77% chance if Hispanic, and a 95% chance if black. The result of Arcidiacono’s study shows a massive discrepancy in Asian applicants that should be admitted compared to the Asian students who are accepted by Harvard. For example, in 2013 approximately 20% of Harvard’s class was made up of Asian students. However, based on academic merit and extracurricular involvement, 43% of Harvard’s class should have consisted of Asian students. In the 2003 Supreme Court case, Grutter v Bollinger, the court ruled that race could be used as a plus factor to achieve diversity, but never as a quota. However, it seems that racial quotas are exactly what Harvard is using to achieve a diverse campus.

Regardless of personal opinion concerning the future of affirmative action, there is an unrefutable bias against applicants of certain races in the admissions process at most colleges and universities in the United States. The debate over whether Students for Fair Admissions should win the case has triggered an emotional outcry from conservatives and liberals alike. This concern is justified as the case is more than a question of who should be allowed into elite universities like Harvard. Rather, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard is a question about who really has access to the American dream and the prosperity promised from our nation’s origin. Moreover, it is a question about how we achieve equality in a nation that strives for equal opportunity. In a time of heightened tension, it certainly seems that there are more opinions and objections than viable solutions.