Harvard accused of ranking Asian-American applicants lowest on “personal qualities”

Harvard accused of ranking Asian-American applicants lowest on "personal qualities"

Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records filed by a group representing Asian-American students in a lawsuit against the university, The New York Times reported.

Asian-Americans scored higher than applicants of any other racial or ethnic group on admissions measures like test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, according to the analysis commissioned by a group that opposes all race-based admissions criteria. But the students’ personal ratings significantly dragged down their chances of being admitted, the analysis found.

The documents came out as part of a lawsuit charging Harvard with systematically discriminating against Asian-Americans, in violation of civil rights law. The suit says that Harvard imposes what is in effect a soft quota of “racial balancing.” This keeps the numbers of Asian-Americans artificially low, while advancing less qualified white, black and Hispanic applicants, the plaintiffs contend.

The court documents, filed in federal court in Boston, also showed that Harvard conducted an internal investigation into its admissions policies in 2013 and found a bias against Asian-American applicants. But Harvard never made the findings public or acted on them.

Harvard, one of the most sought-after and selective universities in the country, admitted only 4.6 percent of its applicants this year. That has led to intense interest in the university’s closely guarded admissions process. Harvard had fought furiously over the last few months to keep secret the documents that were unsealed last week, The Times reported.

Harvard and the group suing it have presented sharply divergent views of what constitutes a fair admissions process. “It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along,” the group, Students for Fair Admissions, said in a court document laying out the analysis. “Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Harvard vigorously disagreed, saying that its own expert analysis showed no discrimination and that seeking diversity is a valuable part of student selection. The university lashed out at the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, Edward Blum, accusing him of using Harvard to replay a previous challenge to affirmative action in college admissions, Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin. In its 2016 decision in that case, the Supreme Court ruled that race could be used as one of many factors in admissions.

“Thorough and comprehensive analysis of the data and evidence makes clear that Harvard College does not discriminate against applicants from any group, including Asian-Americans, whose rate of admission has grown 29 percent over the last decade,” Harvard said in a statement. “Mr. Blum and his organization’s incomplete and misleading data analysis paint a dangerously inaccurate picture of Harvard College’s whole-person admissions process by omitting critical data and information factors.”

In court papers, Harvard said that a statistical analysis could not capture the many intangible factors that go into Harvard admissions. Harvard said that the plaintiffs’ expert, Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economist, had mined the data to his advantage by taking out applicants who were favored because they were legacies, athletes, the children of staff and the like, including Asian-Americans. In response, the plaintiffs said their expert had factored out these applicants because he wanted to look at the pure effect of race on admissions, unclouded by other factors.

Both sides filed papers asking for summary judgment, an immediate ruling in their favor. If the judge denies those requests, as is likely, a trial has been scheduled for October. If it goes on to the Supreme Court, it could upend decades of affirmative action policies at colleges and universities across the country.

Harvard is not the only Ivy League school facing pressure to admit more Asian-American students. Princeton and Cornell and others also have high numbers of Asian-American applicants. Yet their share of Asian-Americans students is comparable with Harvard’s.

White applicants would be most hurt if Asian-American admissions rose, the plaintiffs said. On summary sheets, Asian-American applicants were much more likely than other races to be described as “standard strong,” meaning lacking special qualities that would warrant admission, even though they were more academically qualified, the plaintiffs said. They were 25 percent more likely than white applicants to receive that rating. They were also described as “busy and bright” in their admissions files, the plaintiffs said.

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