A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Harvard University does not discriminate against Asian Americans in undergraduate admissions, handing the school a victory in a lawsuit that marks one of the latest chapters in the affirmative action debate.
U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs rejected a plaintiff’s claims that Harvard violates the law as it considers race in selecting an incoming freshman class. While Harvard’s “admissions process may be imperfect,” Burroughs wrote, the judge concluded that statistical disparities among racial groups of applicants “are not the result of any racial animus or conscious prejudice.”
The judge also found that Harvard “narrowly tailored” its use of race in admissions to achieve the benefits of a diverse class.
“The use of race benefits certain racial and ethnic groups that would otherwise be underrepresented at Harvard and is therefore neither an illegitimate use of race or reflective of racial prejudice,” Burroughs wrote.
Harvard could improve its process, through implicit bias training and other steps, the judge added. “That being said, the Court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better,” she wrote.
The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, a group that said it represents the interests of rejected Asian American applicants, vowed an appeal of a case that could reach the Supreme Court.
‘We’re here to say no’: Asian American critics rally against Harvard admissions policy
“Students for Fair Admissions is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies,” the group’s president, Edward Blum, said in a statement. “We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian-American applicants.”
Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote to the university: “The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student. Everyone admitted to Harvard College has something unique to offer our community, and today we reaffirm the importance of diversity — and everything it represents to the world.”
The ruling was highly anticipated because the case was seen as a challenge not only to Harvard, but to all colleges and universities that take race into account when they build a class. The issue has roused passions among many Asian Americans who fear they are subject to hidden quotas at elite schools, similar to the roadblocks Jewish students often faced early in the 20th century. But others defend affirmative action as a matter of social justice, with profound educational benefits.
The ruling from the judge in Boston also comes at a time of national debate over race, class and access to higher education as a scandal over a cheating and bribery scam to help the children of rich parents get into prominent universities has shaken public confidence this year in the admission system.
Around the world, Harvard is renowned for exclusivity. Of 43,330 who applied to enter as freshmen this fall, Harvard offered admission to 1,950, or 4.5 percent. That means roughly 19 of every 20 applicants were denied. The expected size of the class is about 1,660.
Of those admitted, Harvard said, 25.4 percent identified as Asian American, 14.8 percent as African American and 12.4 percent as Latino. The Asian American share of admits has risen in recent years — a telltale sign, the plaintiff said, that Harvard had adjusted its practices under pressure from the lawsuit.
The university did not specify the white share of admissions for the Class of 2023, but federal data show a plurality of its undergraduates are white students from the United States. (About 12 percent of admitted students are international.)
At its heart, the case centered on whether Harvard discriminated against Asian American applicants, imposing a racial penalty on them in the review of their files and limiting their share in the admitted class to make room for other groups. Harvard denied all of those claims.
The ruling from Burroughs landed months after the trial’s closing arguments and nearly five years after the case began.
Students for Fair Admissions filed the lawsuit against Harvard in November 2014. Blum, a critic of race-based affirmative action who is white, helped organize legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act and the admissions process at the University of Texas at Austin. Among the group’s members are Asian Americans who applied to Harvard and were denied admission. Their names and details about their applications have not been disclosed.
The suit alleged that Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian American applicants “based on prejudicial and stereotypical assumptions about their qualifications.” It also alleged that the university seeks to engineer the demographics of incoming classes to meet predetermined goals through “racial balancing;” that it gives too much weight to race in making admission decisions; and that it has failed to give adequate consideration to “race-neutral” alternatives for achieving diversity.
The judge rejected all four of those claims.
In denying the allegations, Harvard said it has followed decades of Supreme Court precedent that allow colleges to consider race and ethnicity, within limits, to reap the educational benefits of a racially diverse campus.
In June 2016, the high court narrowly upheld the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions at UT-Austin. Unlike the Harvard case, that suit identified a plaintiff who had been denied admission, a white woman named Abigail Fisher.
The 4-to-3 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, authored by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, was a defeat for Blum and his allies. It preserved the status quo for affirmative action: Universities are allowed to consider race as one factor among many in a “holistic” review of an applicant’s background and credentials. But they are not allowed to set racial targets or quotas, and they must review whether alternatives, such as geographic or socioeconomic preferences, would be workable and could accomplish the same goals.
Kennedy has since retired, and conservatives hope his replacement, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, will push the court in a new direction on affirmative action.
The Harvard case unearthed a trove of data on admissions to one of the world’s most selective colleges. Burroughs ordered Harvard to provide the plaintiff with internal electronic records on more than 166,000 domestic applicants spanning six admission cycles through 2014-2015, as well as admission officer comments from hundreds of files. Analyses of that data and other documents, such as a guidebook for alumni interviewers, provided a rare public look inside the gate-keeping shop of a school where tens of thousands apply every year.
Normally Harvard does not disclose how many children of alumni apply and what share are accepted. But court documents revealed that 4,644 “legacy” applicants from the United States applied during those six cycles, and 34 percent were admitted. Documents also showed that 1,374 applicants were identified as recruited athletes in that time, and 86 percent of them were admitted.
Dockets, ratings and ‘tips’: How Harvard admissions selects a student
The data the plaintiff obtained, stripped of names and other identifying information, included numeric ratings Harvard assigned to each applicant, from 1 (high) to 4 (low), on four dimensions: academic, extracurricular, personal and athletic. Also noted were gender, race and ethnicity, among other characteristics, and the decisions Harvard made.
The plaintiff hired a Duke University economist, Peter S. Arcidiacono, to analyze the data. He concluded in a report made public last year that Harvard imposes a “significant penalty” on Asian American applicants relative to white students when it rates their personal qualities — such as leadership, grit, courage and kindness — and when it makes admission decisions. He also found that Asian Americans are less likely to be accepted in certain situations than white, African American and Hispanic applicants with similar profiles.
But Harvard hired its own expert, David Card, an economist from the University of California at Berkeley, who disputed Arcidiacono’s findings. Card concluded that the “purported ‘penalty against Asian Americans’ ” does not exist. He contended that Arcidiacono had cherry-picked data to skew his results and focused too narrowly on academic achievement in an applicant pool brimming with candidates who boast perfect or near-perfect test scores and grades.
What gives you an edge in Harvard admissions? Check the trial evidence
The dueling experts took the stand last fall in a three-week trial that dissected their statistical argument in numbing detail. Also testifying were Harvard’s longtime dean of admissions, William R. Fitzsimmons, and several university officials, students, alumni and admission officers.
Harvard acknowledged that some highly qualified applicants receive a plus, or “tip,” based on race or ethnicity that can lead to an offer of admission. It defended that practice as essential for campus diversity. If the university were forced to ignore race in admissions, Harvard said, the number of black and Latino students could drop substantially.
Students for Fair Admissions pressed Harvard on whether it had ignored questions about potential bias against Asian Americans that surfaced through a 2013 internal university report. It also zeroed in on why admission officers tended to give Asian Americans lower marks for personal ratings than for academic and extracurricular achievement.
Internal Harvard study suggested Asian Americans would benefit from ‘academics-only’ admissions
Adam K. Mortara, an attorney for the plaintiff, charged that the discrepancies arose because the university failed to give the admission officers explicit instruction on how to consider race. Without such guidance, Mortara said during the trial, “you have let the wolf of racial bias in through the front door.”
William F. Lee, an attorney for Harvard, countered that the real discrimination threat — “that wolf,” as he called it — came from the plaintiff and others who would “turn back the clock” to undo progress on diversity.
Lee questioned why the plaintiff chose not to put any of its members on the witness stand or put their applications into the record of evidence. “If there was an application file after all of this that showed discrimination, wouldn’t we have seen it?” he asked during the trial.
There was no jury. Burroughs, a nominee of President Barack Obama, joined the federal bench in 2014 soon after the lawsuit was filed. During a pretrial hearing in January 2016, the judge revealed that she had once applied to Harvard and been rejected.
As an attorney discussed the large amount of information Harvard tracks on each applicant, Burroughs joked: “I don’t know if I should be starting to feel better or worse about the fact that I didn’t get into Harvard.” Neither side in the case sought her recusal. Burroughs graduated from Middlebury College in 1983.
Will this effect Filipinos? will I get discriminated when I reach college age level?
yes including us Filipinos, they have been doing this for decades
This was NOT a case about affirmative action. This was made amply clear in this writeup here:
This was a case of Anti-Asianism, of “Negative Action” against Asian students, discriminated against and penalized for being Asian. Harvard’s process favored whites like the judge in the case; the judge chose to make a political decision, rather than a legal one – centering her arguments on matters like affirmative action which were not core to the accusations.
Harvard’s process favors whites
Among the most striking findings was that Asians were admitted at lower rates than whites, even though Asian applicants were rated higher than white applicants in most of the categories used in the admissions process, including academics, extracurriculars, and test scores.
Harvard downgraded Asian personality scores without meeting them
One exception was the “personal rating.” According to Harvard, this rating “reflects the wide range of information . . . that bears on applicants’ personal qualities,” and “may shed light on the applicant’s character.” The plaintiff claims that the use of affirmative action does not explain the negative effect on the admissions rate for Asians relative to whites.
Read Jeannie Suk Gersen’s piece in the New Yorker (in the link at the top)- a professor at Harvard.
The case was about whether Harvard can go beyond the Supreme Court’s prior ruling that universities can factor race….and discriminate against a single race. According to this white judge, they can. Anyone telling you this case is about affirmative action doesn’t fully understand the case or is lying- it is about Negative Action.
For us, this precedent goes WAY beyond admissions. It legitimizes society-wide discrimination against Asians because of false stereotypes of our supposed lack of “soft skills”; it cements the view that discounting an Asian candidate for a job is acceptable because their personality is lacking. Worst of all, it suggests that discrimination against racial minorities is acceptable so long as the targets are Asian.
While she said Harvard’s admissions approach was “not perfect,” “the Court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better.”
In other words, yes Harvard is wrong but because the people who are getting the shaft are Asian it’s not that bad.
Any attempt to reduce say, Black or Jewish admissions would be met with stiff resistance, and probably protests. But in this case you even have Asian liberals cheering on Harvard.
Harvard hasn’t been found of illegally discriminating on the basis of race. They’ll only be more emboldened by this, expect harsher criteria designed to keep admissions of Asians at a ceiling.
1 day ago
Harvard might have wished they lost this case today. If this goes to the supreme court the entire framework of Affirmative Action will be torn apart. I’m 90% sure the supreme court will come to a conclusion that race based admissions inevitably lead to racial quotas, which would basically force the same type of race blind admissions that happens already in California public schools nationwide.
I really do not understand the word salad Harvard used to differentiate between a racial “target” and a “quota”. i think any rational person knows that the two are the same thing and the differentiation used by Harvard is just legal gas lighting.
1 day ago
There is a high chance it might due to the current, and likely future configuration of the court. RBG is too sick and will probably step down or pass away. As a Democrat, I am torn because I think Harvard’s admission policy is absolute bullshit. But on the other hand, an ultra ring wing court will attack so many things that benefit all minorities, including Asians (like family immigration)
9 hours ago
This here. We need to look at the bigger picture.
Maybe we Asians should start creating our own colleges and universities like black people did with HBCU’s.
And I bet those Asian colleges / universities would become way better than Harvard and the other Ivy leagues in academics and research
STEM is good for Asians if their knowledge and expertise only benefit Asians from a business standpoint. This isn’t the case at the moment.
Cooper Union has a lot of Asian Students? The entire neighborhood where the school is located, is infested with privileged Whites, who live the hog life at the expense of minorities like the Asians.
Cooper Union has a lot of White students who only go for an easy major like Architecture or Fine Arts, while Asians go into Engineering and work for White people upon graduation. I can bet that this is the situation there.
f**k Harvard for the manner in which they are using race in this instance (explicitly docking Asians on characteristics like personableness and leadership) but unfortunately the leadership of students for fair admissions has for years been trying to undermine affirmative action in the United States (led by a white man named Edward Blum who has his own motives). This lawsuit just proves it’s cool to bring other marginal groups up at the expense of Asians. This is something the entire pan asian community has to deal with all the time in the United States, doesn’t matter if you’re ethnically Indian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Nepalese whatever. The Democrats have made it quite clear where we are in the totem pole.
The whites, ESPECIALLY liberals have always gotten to decide whether we’re minorities or not, only when it’s convenient to them for us to be one.
Let’s be honest, if the personality ratings were honest and not racist then Asians would probably score highest due to desirable traits of consciousness or agreeability while pink male privilegeds most likely score high on undesirable traits such as entitlement and narcissism. We all know this is true, and that’s why the racism is so clear and evident.
trump literally made asians an adversary
chinese american scientists being racially profiled
push the sterotype Asians don’t play fair
you guys are crazy for supporting him
Democrats also think all Chinese are spies and want to racially profile them. Chuck Schumer has basically agreed with Trump 100% in terms of starting a cold war with China. Trump is garbage but the yellow peril issue is bipartisan for the most part. Unless you can name some Democrats that actually push back at the government launching neo McCarthyism against Chinese in America?
There’s still the First Court of Appeals to appeal to before SCOTUS.
Are there any lawyers or law students who know anything about the ideological composition of the 1st Cir.? How sympathetic do you think the judges there would be to this case?
3 of the 6 justices are non Asian minorities. 3 have been appointed by Obama and 3 by Clinton, W. Bush, and Reagan. It’s going to be ruled in favor of Harvard.
The Supreme Court most likely won’t take the case because they’ve taken enough AA cases in the past. Setting the same precedent again and again.
Its not just Harvard, its systemic in academia.
Look at the numbers below for GPA/MCAT vs race for medical school admissions. Basically for the same grades/MCAT scores, asians have a 20% chance of acceptance, whites 30%, latinos 60% and blacks 80%.
Somehow we cant believe Ivy Leagues used to put quota limiting the number of Jews in their universities, but today if your skin is yellow(a small 5% minority btw) its accepted to set their standards far higher. Its racism by definition.
Learn your history:
Certain private universities, most notably Harvard, introduced policies which effectively placed a quota on the number of Jews admitted to the university. According to historian David Oshinsky, on writing about Jonas Salk, “Most of the surrounding medical schools (Cornell, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Yale) had rigid quotas in place. In 1935 Yale accepted 76 applicants from a pool of 501. About 200 of those applicants were Jewish and only five got in.” He notes that Dean Milton Winternitz’s instructions were remarkably precise: “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.” As a result, Oshinsky added, “Jonas Salk and hundreds like him” enrolled in New York University instead. Physicist and Nobel laureate Richard P. Feynman was turned away from Columbia College in the 1930s and went to MIT instead. See also Numerus clausus in the United States.
I wish a could link a picture from the paper “legacy and athlete preference at harvard” but stats show that if your asian at the highest academic decile Your chances of being accepted are at 12% but if your black your chances are 58%. That doesn’t seem fair to me. The paper also shows evidence that being a black non legacy applicant you have a slightly higher advantage than a white legacy student. As well as 70% of black applicants would not have been accepted if subjected to the same standards as the baseline, which is white.
WHOA! where did this Guest comments come from? something hit your nerves?
let me guess, lets all team up against white supremacy.
I copied those comments from reddit. I am still working on the guest comment features, so it will easier for people to comment.
I was being discriminated too when I was applying for colleges and grants. I have to work harder than everybody else and now my student debt is killing me.
After student debt you have to pay insurances which takes up 1/3 third to 1/4 of your yearly salaries just to be a doctor.