Trial over Harvard's admissions practices starts today

The lawsuit brought against Harvard by Students for Fair Admissions, which claims the university is discriminating against Asian students, starts today and is expected to last about three weeks. From the Washington Post:

A trial will open here in federal court Monday to weigh accusations that Harvard University’s famously competitive undergraduate admissions system is rigged against Asian Americans, a case that could become another landmark in the nation’s long debate over affirmative action.

Students for Fair Admissions, a group representing Asian American applicants, alleges in the lawsuit that Harvard violates civil rights in multiple ways through an admissions process in which race is a known factor.

The plaintiff contends that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans when rating their personal qualities such as leadership and compassion and that every year engineers a precise racial balance of admission offers that gives an unfair edge to less-qualified applicants from other groups. The plaintiff also charges that Harvard gives too much weight to race and fails to comply with a Supreme Court mandate to consider race-neutral alternatives for assembling a diverse class.

As part of the lawsuit, plaintiffs were given access to Harvard’s admissions data. An examination by their experts found that Asian students routinely received much lower scores on personal traits which had the result of offsetting their higher grades and test scores. Back in June, a NY Times opinion piece explained it this way:

Harvard evaluated applicants on the extent to which they possessed the following traits: likability, helpfulness, courage, kindness, positive personality, people like to be around them, the person is widely respected. Asian-Americans, who had the highest scores in both the academic and extracurricular ratings, lagged far behind all other racial groups in the degree to which they received high ratings on the personality score.

“Asian-American applicants receive a 2 or better on the personal score more than 20% of the time only in the top academic index decile. By contrast, white applicants receive a 2 or better on the personal score more than 20% of the time in the top six deciles,” wrote Mr. Arcidiacono. “Hispanics receive such personal scores more than 20% of the time in the top seven deciles, and African Americans receive such scores more than 20% of the time in the top eight deciles.”…

Mr. Arcidiacono found that 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.

The expectation is that whatever the court decides, one side or the other will appeal and this case will eventually wind up at the Supreme Court. One reason this is the case is that many see this case as one that could potentially impact affirmative action policies at other schools. In fact, if you scan the news today you’ll find that the importance of this case for affirmative action is frequently mentioned in the headline.

Last week columnist New Yorker columnist Jeannie Suk Gersen argued that before this is a case about affirmative action writ large, it’s a case about Harvard’s (alleged) discrimination against Asian students:

It has served Harvard’s interest for people to think that, unless it wins this case, affirmative action will be eliminated, and that Harvard’s treatment of Asian-American applicants was necessary to attain an acceptable level of diversity among its undergraduates. The many amicus briefs that have been filed in support of Harvard generally make those assumptions. One brief, filed by sixteen élite universities, including the rest of the schools in the Ivy League, states that if they were “required to adopt race-neutral admissions policies” they “would no longer be able to effectively pursue the attainment of the type of diversity that advances their educational missions.”

But to understand the stakes of the case, it is important not to conflate two separate concepts: the legal issue of affirmative action and the factual issue of whether Harvard discriminated against one particular racial group.

Gersen goes on to say that even if Harvard did discriminate against Asians that doesn’t necessarily mean the case will end policies to help other minorities groups. But it seems to me the bottom line here is that if racial balancing was achieved at Harvard by holding back qualified students of one race, then one obvious solution is to stop trying to achieve racial balancing and just admit the highest performing students regardless of race. The outcome of this case may not necessitate that end but it would make a pretty strong case for doing so.