Affirmative action: Harvard racial admissions trial begins

The lawsuit, launched by the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an anti-Affirmative Action advocacy group, will go to trial on Monday at a U.S. District Court in Boston.

Dozens of supporters and observers packed into the courtroom and two overflow rooms Monday, a day after backers from both sides hosted separate rallies in the Boston area.

At issue is whether Harvard unfairly discriminated against an Asian-American applicant who says the Ivy League school held him to higher standards than applicants of other races.

Harvard denies any discrimination, saying it considers race as one of many factors when considering applicants.

The university also notes that the proportion of students of Asian origin has increased substantially since 2010, and today account for 23 percent of the 2,000 students admitted to the freshman class, compared to 15 percent blacks and 12 percent Hispanics, out of 40,000 applicants.

Pham writes that though she is "tempted to join the angry throngs of my fellow peers" regarding Harvard's reportedly racist anti-Asian admissions policies, she believes that Asian students should "withdraw our collective support" from the pushback against affirmative action. But with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court earlier this month, proponents of affirmative action have expressed unease that the appointment of the judge - and the resulting 5-4 conservative majority - will push the court to roll back previously established safeguards on the practice.

Separately, the Justice Department has opened civil rights investigations into complaints that Harvard and Yale discriminate against Asian Americans.

Students for Fair Admissions is led by Edward Blum, a legal strategist who has fought against the use of race at other colleges, including a Supreme Court case in 2016 that upheld policies at the University of Texas.

Mortara contended Harvard manipulates students' "personal" ratings to the disadvantage of Asian Americans, diminishing their chances to win a place. This couldn't be further from the truth - a study of the 2011-2012 school year found that while 81 percent of Asian-American students had access to college-preparatory math and science courses, only 57 percent of black students enjoyed the same privileges. This time Asian Americans are at the center of the fight. Fitzsimmons denied any bias, explaining it as an "evenhanded" way to reach rural students who otherwise wouldn't consider Harvard. It comes at a time when the nation's elite colleges have come under mounting scrutiny over the way race factors into the admissions process.

"That's race discrimination plain and simple, isn't it Dean Fitzsimmons?"

Barring a surprise change in strategy, the plaintiff's attorneys do not plan to call as witnesses any Asian Americans who allege that they were victimized by Harvard.

Mortara said that while Asian American applicants received higher ratings than other racial groups in academics and extracurricular activities, their applications are dragged down by comparatively low "personal" ratings determined by vague and subjective criteria that benefit other applicants, particularly African American and Hispanic applicants.

"Basically, we just want the colleges to admit students based on their merits, instead of meddling in the process and systematically discriminating against students based on their race, skin color and national origin", Yu said.

While the case focuses on Harvard, it could have big consequences for higher education, especially if it moves on to the U.S. Supreme Court. William Lee, a lawyer for the school and a member of its governing board, said race is just one of many factors that can work in favor of an applicant, getting no more weight than a student's geography or family income.

  • Rogelio Becker