Room for Discussion: Harvard Lawsuit and Affirmative Action

Stefano Amador ’19, Helen Wu ’19

Introduction to Room For Discussion

Based off of the New York Times’ Room For Debate section, Room for Discussion showcases the nuances of the multiple opinions revolving around a current controversial topic in order to encourage awareness, empathy, and further conversations. It is important to state that the opinions presented in this piece are not the opinions of The Centipede or any of its writers. Without further adieu, we hope you enjoy this edition of Room for Discussion.


General overview on the Harvard Lawsuit

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), the plaintiff in the case, are accusing Harvard University for setting a quota on Asian American students by holding them to a higher standard than other racial groups. Harvard University denies these claims, stating that they use race as one factor within the holistic admissions process, in accordance with the 1978 University of California v. Bakke case that permits race as college admissions criteria. The 1978 case set the premise for the use of affirmative action in college admissions, where the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of using race as a factor in college admissions, which may be used to increase diversity in a school to representative of the larger population. The lawsuits relationship to affirmative action has the potential to drastically change the college admissions process and affect racial diversity in universities across the country.


Opinion 1

Before considering the case’s wider implications for affirmative action, the bottom line is that it forces Harvard and other institutions to be more transparent with the admissions process, thus revealing many inequitable factors. Thus far, the case has shined light on Harvard’s considerations of certain factors beyond the student’s control, such as giving bumps to students with legacies or parents donating buildings, students recruited for athletics, or students who live in rural areas (NY Times). While these are tangible qualities that Harvard looks for in an applicant, there is a blurrier line for qualities such as personal rating that is assigned to the applicant. According to data analysis done by SFFA on 160,000 student’s profiles, Asian Americans consistently received lower numeral scores on personality traits such as “likeability”, “integrity”, “courage”, etc. Harvard’s racial biases (and by association the biases of other elite institutions) are indisputable and frankly unacceptable.

To many, the benefits of this case and its mission to hold colleges accountable for the admissions process has been overshadowed by its potential effect on affirmative action.Unlike previous cases that usually argued white students being disadvantaged in the admissions process, the lawsuit is unique in its approach of alleging that one racial group is disadvantaged due to the preference for white students and other racial minorities. This is the primary reason for why the the case has been so controversial—most Asian Americans are split on the issue. However, this case likely would not be as polarizing if it occurred under another administration. Currently, the Trump administration stands in firm support with SFFA, which has made previous moves to discourage race as a factor in college admissions. This association is damaging for the publicity of the Harvard case and for people who are concerned with fighting against discrimination in the college admissions process.

By drawing attention to discrimination against Asian Americans, the lawsuit is also performing the important job of debunking the “model minority” myth used to undermine the struggles of the Asian community. Historically, the model minority myth was generated by white people in order to wedge a gap between Asian Americans and African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. The term also erases the fraught history of Asians who have immigrated to the US, whose experience fluctuates with politics and the will of those in power. Pertaining to the lawsuit, the model minority myth has resurfaced to diminish the very real prejudice faced by Asian Americans in the Harvard Lawsuit and pit people of color against each other. This is a misinterpretation of the core of the case, which beckons elite institutions like Harvard to be held accountable for inequitable decisions.


Opinion 2

Since the start of this trial, Harvard University admissions has expressed that within their process they aim to create a campus with racial diversity. In contrast, they have also stated that race and affirmative action have no final influence for enrolled applicants. From The Boston Globe, a reporter even mentioned that “both sides have analyzed the same set of admissions data but have come to different conclusions on the impact of race. The Harvard expert found that race does not determine admissions outcomes any more than a number of other factors.”

Throughout various communities, including our own, this controversy has sparked a complicated discussion on affirmative action. The deep question being: does affirmative action look at merit fairly? President of the SFFA Edward Blum has strongly and openly believed that there should be no racial consideration in college admissions. With this trial, Blum aims to put affirmative action into consideration on a Supreme Court level creating deep concerns for others, especially with the recent elected Justice Brett Kavanaugh. With both the Trump administration and their narrative of boosting white privilege, affirmative action would not be examined equitably.

Because of the Harvard lawsuit, the state of affirmative action has become very vulnerable. Its termination likely would as a result have a detrimental impact for minorities such as Black and Hispanic college applicants. From a 2013 New York Times graph, data shows that getting rid of affirmative action drops the population of Black and Hispanic students enrolled in universities by more or less than half (NY Times).

Blum, the mastermind of the court case, has tried many times to erase affirmative action; however, these cases were struck down since white students were the ones arguing that they had a disadvantage. While the premise of SFFA is to fight against discrimination on the basis of race in college admissions, Blum has discreetly found his opportunity with this trial to achieve his own agenda. This has entirely changed the nature of the lawsuit, since Blum’s goal at the end of all of this is to remove the “disadvantage” for white students that believe minorities instantly qualify to an elite university because of their background.

If it comes to that colleges and universities would most likely have to consider the socio-economic status of applicants. However, this would mean that more white students would be admitted to these schools because the majority of poor Americans are white. There is also the issue that marginalized communities in America heavily intersect class with race and education. People like Blum are willing to compromise the chances for people of color to gain social mobility when it means defending white privilege.

The Centipede drew on material from the New York Times, CNN, NBC news, and The Atlantic to craft this issue of Room for Discussion.