Justice Department sides with group suing Harvard over admissions practices

The group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard alleging that the school was using admissions gimmicks to limit the number of qualified Asian students it would admit. An analysis of Harvard’s admissions data filed in support of the group’s lawsuit found the school was consistently downgrading Asian students on subjective categories in order to offset their generally stronger academic qualifications.


The NY Times outlined how this gaming of the system worked back in June: “Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than any other race on personal traits like ‘positive personality,’ likability, courage, kindness and being ‘widely respected,’ according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records filed Friday in federal court in Boston by a group representing Asian-American students in a lawsuit against the university.”

And the results of this downgrading of personality scores was dramatic. According to a NY Times opinion piece on the topic, the author of the analysis concluded, “an otherwise identical applicant bearing an Asian-American male identity with a 25 percent chance of admission would have a 32 percent chance of admission if he were white, a 77 percent chance of admission if he were Hispanic, and a 95 percent chance of admission if he were black.”

This is the system that Harvard is currently defending as beneficial and fair. But Thursday Students for Fair Admissions got some support from the Department of Justice. From the NY Times:

In a so-called statement of interest, the department supported the claims of the plaintiffs, a group of Asian-Americans rejected by Harvard. They contend that Harvard has systematically discriminated against them by artificially capping the number of qualified Asian-Americans from attending the school in order to advance less qualified students of other races.

“Harvard has failed to carry its demanding burden to show that its use of race does not inflict unlawful racial discrimination on Asian-Americans,” the Justice Department said in its filing.

The filing said that Harvard “uses a vague ‘personal rating’ that harms Asian-American applicants’ chances for admission and may be infected with racial bias; engages in unlawful racial balancing; and has never seriously considered race-neutral alternatives in its more than 45 years of using race to make admissions decisions.”…

“Harvard has failed to show that it does not unlawfully discriminate against Asian-Americans,” the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday.

Harvard responded, saying it was “deeply disappointed” but not surprised “given the highly irregular investigation the D.O.J. has engaged in thus far.”


Lurking barely below the surface of this fight is the question of affirmative action more generally. If this lawsuit is not dismissed (as Harvard is currently seeking) one side or the other will lose and then likely appeal the case up the chain which eventually leads to the Supreme Court. That’s where pro-affirmative action groups fear this case could be used to dismantle the status quo:

If it winds its way to the Supreme Court, it could be heard by Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, Mr. Trump’s nominee for the vacant seat once held by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. The case could have far-reaching implications for the nation’s colleges and universities that consider race in their admissions processes.

That’s still a long way off but for now, the case stands as a reminder that there are losers as well as winners in the application of social justice. In this case, the losers appear to be hard-working Asian-Americans who are routinely judged to be drones lacking positive personality traits in order to make the numbers work out the way Harvard want them to work out.

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