Harvard being investigated by DOJ over admissions policies

The Wall Street Journal reports that Harvard University is being investigated by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The investigation is looking into claims that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in admissions. The DOJ claims Harvard is refusing to cooperate and has yet to turn over a single requested document:

The Justice Department is investigating complaints that formed the basis of a federal civil lawsuit filed in 2014 in Boston, according to the documents. That suit alleges Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian-Americans by limiting the number of Asian students who are admitted.

The lawsuit, brought by a nonprofit called Students for Fair Admissions, said the practices violate federal civil-rights law and asks a federal judge to prohibit Harvard from using race as a factor in future undergraduate admissions decisions. The suit is pending…

The department told Harvard it “may file a lawsuit” to enforce compliance if Harvard doesn’t hand over the documents by Dec. 1, according to a separate letter dated Nov. 17 from John M. Gore, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. The department wrote that the materials requested by the Justice Department have already been provided by Harvard to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit…

Over the past two months, “Harvard has pursued a strategy of delay and has not yet produced even a single document,” according to another Nov. 17 letter sent from the agency to [Harvard’s attorney Seth] Waxman.

While DOJ is trying to get information out of Harvard, the school has also filed requests for any communications that led to the current DOJ investigation. So far the DOJ has told Harvard the complaints it is investigating are the same ones involved in the ongoing lawsuit and says it can’t release any additional information because of its ongoing investigation. In short, both sides are refusing to provide information to the other.

But as mentioned above, if Harvard ignores its latest deadline, that could result in a DOJ lawsuit. The WSJ reports, “if a federal judge finds Harvard has violated Title VI, the court has broad authority to issue a remedy, such as ordering the university to change its admissions policies, the experts say.” So what’s at stake here is the affirmative action admissions practices of one of the nation’s most elite schools.

Underlying all of this is the fact that Asian Americans are disproportionately represented at elite schools, i.e. they take a much higher percentage of available slots for incoming students than their percentage of the population. However, Asian admission rates would be even higher if admissions criteria relied solely on grades and test scores without regard for “diversity.” From an Atlantic piece published last year:

Whereas Asian American enrollment at the California Institute of Technology, which bases admission strictly on academics, grew from 25 percent in 1992 to 43 percent in 2013, it slightly decreased at Harvard—from 19 percent to 18 percent. SFFA also points to a widely cited Princeton study, which in 2005 found that an Asian American applicant must score 140 points more than her white counterpart on the 1600-point SAT.

The Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) uses similar logic in a separate civil-rights complaint, which requests that the Education and Justice departments investigate the admissions processes at Yale University, Brown University, and Dartmouth College. The AACE, which represents more than 130 organizations, contends that the schools, in relying on de facto racial quotas and stereotypes, deny admission to highly qualified Asian American applicants while admitting non-Asian students of equal caliber.

The college admissions process remains something of a black box, seemingly by design. It’s difficult to say where the “holistic” approach to admissions crosses a line into racial quotas that benefit some minorities at the expense of others.