Trial reveals Harvard's 'Asian problem' (but will it matter?)

Jeannie Suk Gersen has been covering the Harvard trial for the New Yorker. Yesterday she published a piece which points out some aspects of Harvard’s recruitment process which sound a lot like discrimination against Asians. It turns out that Harvard makes a special effort to recruit people from what it calls “sparse country,” places other than big cities on the east and west coast. However, Harvard uses two different standards when sending out letters of encouragement to these prospective students, one for whites and a different, higher standard for Asians:

Among the revelations of the trial’s first week was that, to this day, Harvard makes a special effort to recruit students from twenty states that it calls Sparse Country. In his testimony, William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, who has worked in the admissions office since before Bakke, reminisced about his Harvard roommate in the nineteen-sixties, who was “a great ambassador” for South Dakota. He also testified about the letters Harvard sends to high-school students in Sparse Country who have P.S.A.T. scores of at least 1310, encouraging them to apply. The only Sparse Country students with such scores who do not get the letter are Asians; to receive it, an Asian male must score at least 1380. An attorney for the plaintiff asked why a white boy in, say, immigrant-rich Las Vegas with a score of 1310 would get the letter, while his Asian classmate with a 1370 would not. Fitzsimmons responded with generalities about the need to recruit from a broad array of states to achieve diversity.

When asked whether Harvard “put a thumb on the scale for white students” from Sparse Country, Fitzsimmons contrasted students who “have only lived in the Sparse Country state for a year or two” with those who “have lived there for their entire lives under very different settings.” Perhaps he meant that whites are more likely to be “farm boys” or “great ambassadors,” like his South Dakotan roommate. Or perhaps he meant that Asians are more likely than whites to apply to Harvard, less likely to be accepted, and more likely to enroll if accepted, so Harvard saves itself postage costs by reducing its recruiting of Asians. But the exchange highlighted a key question of the trial: whether the Harvard admissions process treats white racial identity as an asset, relative to Asian identity (or treats Asian identity as a drawback, relative to white identity). By pointing to the higher numerical cutoff for Asians as a group at the recruitment stage, before any holistic review of individual applicants could have occurred, the plaintiff apparently was suggesting that race is not used as one factor among many but, rather, as the determinative factor, in Harvard’s alleged effort to shape its class to be more white and less Asian.

I’d be curious to know if the cutoff for these letters is different for black and Latino students as well, but Gersen doesn’t say whether that was mentioned at trial. Regardless, this seems like pretty clear evidence that Harvard is favoring groups by race. If the only two factors in sending these letters are race and PSAT scores, how is this holistic?

I’ve written previously about the fact that Harvard tends to grant Asian applicants higher marks on grades and test scores (the highest of any racial group) but these ratings are offset by lower scores for personal qualities. According to Gersen, Harvard admitted that was true but maintained it was an accurate representation of written recommendations coming from outside the school:

Fitzsimmons’s testimony confirmed that admissions officers gave Asian applicants higher ratings than white applicants in the academic and extracurricular categories, but that Asians’ admissions rates were pulled down because of their lower personal ratings, despite having alumni-interview scores comparable to or higher than those of whites. While Fitzsimmons rejected the notion that Asian-Americans have worse personal qualities than whites, he speculated that their lower personal ratings reflected the fact that high-school teachers and guidance counselors’ support in recommendations is stronger for whites than for Asians. In other words, if there was indeed bias against Asians, it originated outside of Harvard. If that is so, though, it is curious that the holistic review process, which is designed to take account of various disadvantages in a student’s minority background, would not attempt to correct for it.

This is a curious point. Why does Harvard have no interest in correcting this obvious bias which shuts out high-achieving Asian kids on the grounds that they lack positive personal qualities? Imagine for a moment that Harvard was consistently ranking high-achieving black students as personality deficient. It’s clearly aware this pattern exists but blames it on bias outside the school and chooses to do nothing to counter it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that outside observers would conclude Harvard was, at best, ignoring an important bias hampering black students. And at worst, one might say the school was adopting that bias as its own. This shouldn’t be any different.

Despite all of this, Gersen seems rather blase about the chances of Harvard being held to account. “It is rather hard to imagine Harvard losing a case of such importance to its brand as social equalizer, especially in a courthouse in a town so palpably dominated by its footprint and its alumni,” she writes. That sounds like a long-winded way of saying “The fix is in.” She may be right about that given the stakes of this trial, but it still seems worthwhile to expect better in light of the evidence.

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