Harvard University and the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) met in federal court in Boston this week for the start of a contentious trial that many expect to have far-reaching consequences for college admissions.
SFFA first filed suit against Harvard in 2014, claiming that its holistic admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans in order to maintain racial quotas. The group is best known for its founder Edward Blum’s failed attempt to prove that the University of Texas at Austin discriminates against white applicants in the landmark case Fisher v. University of Texas. Now, Blum and SFFA say Harvard gives preference to white applicants through several tactics that deliberately weed out high-achieving Asian American candidates.
One of SFFA’s strongest criticisms is Harvard’s practice of assigning applicants a personality rating. The plaintiffs claim the criteria for this ranking is intentionally vague, allowing admissions officers to systematically assign Asian Americans low scores. In Monday’s opening remarks, SFFA attorney Adam Mortara told U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs that even if she were to rule against the plaintiffs’ other claims, she could not deny the evidence that Harvard’s personality metric is influenced by race and ethnicity.
Mortara also made sure to note that SFFA’s intentions in the case are not to disprove the constitutionality of affirmative action or the benefits of diversity in higher education. Instead, he stated, the purpose of the suit is to prove that Harvard’s elite and secretive admissions process hides a blatant anti-Asian bias.
Harvard attorney William Lee — an Asian American alum — disagreed with this point in his opening statement by accusing SFFA of exploiting Asian Americans to further its mission to overturn affirmative action in college admissions. He also defended the university’s objective to create a diverse student population, noting that this has helped increase Asian American numbers on campus. Lastly, Lee stated that an applicant’s race as well as their personality score are just two of the many factors taken into consideration by Harvard’s 40-person admissions committee.
William R. Fitzsimmons, the university’s longtime dean of admissions, was the first to take the stand on Monday afternoon, at which time he was questioned by SFFA attorney John Hughes in what news sources say was a heated exchange. Hughes began by asking Fitzsimmons to explain discrepancies between the test scores of white and Asian American high school students who receive recruitment materials from the college. The dean replied that such materials are sent to all students who are top-ranked for their region, meaning that places like coastal cities — where the majority of Asian Americans live — tend to have higher standards for recruitment than regions like the Midwest, where test scores tend to be less competitive. Hughes rebuffed that these unequal standards equated to “race discrimination, plain and simple.”
On Tuesday, Hughes continued his questioning of Fitzsimmons — who has served as dean of admissions for 32 years — by asking about the history of holistic admissions standards at Harvard, which originated in the 1920s as a means to exclude Jewish students. SFFA has accused the university of adjusting this criteria over time to apply this prejudice against Asian Americans, with Hughes citing a 1990 investigation into Fitzsimmons’ office by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) as proof of this supposed bias. Fitzsimmons responded to these accusations by pointing out that the OCR cleared Harvard of anti-Asian bias and that the university has continuously revised its standards to ensure more equitable admissions.
On the third day of questioning, SFFA shared emails from Fitzsimmons that describe giving special consideration to applicants from extremely wealthy families who already are or have the potential to become large-scale donors. While the emails did not reveal deliberate bias against Asian Americans, they did demonstrate a pattern of preferential admissions for wealthy candidates. Fitzsimmons defended the emails by stating that this is a common practice, that preferred admissions does not mean guaranteed admission, and that the university also prioritizes the admittance of low-income applicants.
Other high-ranking administrators will take the stand in coming days. Current and former Asian American students are also slated to testify, some on behalf of the university and others — including rejected applicants — in support of SFFA. The group has stated that it will appeal Burroughs’ decision should she rule in Harvard’s favor. The possibility of the case being brought before the now conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court has many worried that SFFA could succeed in not only eliminating race-conscious admissions at Harvard but in overturning affirmative action in higher education altogether.