Does Harvard discriminate against Asians? That depends on who got in
A lawsuit challenging the use of race as a factor in US college admissions will go to trial this week
Harrison Chen and Thang Diep graduated No. 1 from public high schools. Both excelled in extracurricular activities and scored high on their college admissions tests. And both are Asian-American.
But the similarities stop there.
Chen, who was raised by middle-class Chinese immigrants outside Raleigh, North Carolina, was rejected by Harvard. Diep, a Vietnamese immigrant who grew up in a working-class family in Reseda, California, got in.
Their experiences have left them with distinct feelings about affirmative action and a federal lawsuit against Harvard that puts Asian Americans at the centre of one of the most contentious issues in higher education.
Chen opposes the consideration of race in college admissions and had planned to join like-minded Asian Americans at a rally in Boston on Sunday, a day before Harvard is expected to go on trial.
“People should be judged on character and merit,” said Chen, an 18-year-old freshman at his backup choice, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
“What does the colour of your skin have to do with admissions?”
Diep, who favours affirmative action, planned to attend a rally a few kilometres away in Harvard Square in support of the university and its policies.
“Removing race won’t advance us to be a more just and equal society,” said Diep, a 21-year-old senior at Harvard.
“Rather, it would limit educational opportunities to people from higher classes and a white background.”
The primary fight against affirmative action has long been waged by whites who argue that giving special consideration to racial minorities has unfairly denied them spots at US colleges and universities.
But in the Harvard case, Asian Americans argue that racial considerations have made them a victim of their own academic success.
They tend to get better grades and score higher on standardised tests than other races but claim they are frequently rejected as a result of “racial balancing”, which is akin to racial quotas and has been ruled unconstitutional.
They compare themselves to Jewish students who faced admissions quotas at elite schools in the early 20th century.
“Being Asian-American actually decreases the chances of admissions,” the lawsuit said.
Citing a Duke University economist’s analysis of six years of Harvard admissions data, it claimed that Asian-American applicants who have a 25 per cent chance of getting in would have a 35 per cent chance if they were white, and dramatically better odds than that if they were black or Latino.
It also cited an internal 2013 Harvard report that suggested that admissions of Asian Americans would shoot up substantially if they were evaluated based on academics alone.
As it stands, Asian Americans make up 6 per cent of the US population and 22 per cent of Harvard’s current freshman class. The latter number has been rising since 2010.
In responding to the suit, Harvard said studies of its admissions, including its own internal review, have been either inconclusive or flawed.
The plaintiff is a group called Students for Fair Admissions, which was founded by Edward Blum, a long-time foe of affirmative action. He is white.
He helped a white woman sue the University of Texas, Austin over its admissions policy in the most recent affirmative action case to reach the Supreme Court, which in 2016 ruled in favour of the school.
Harvard calls Blum an “anti-race conscious admissions activist” and one Asian-American civil rights group supporting the university in the case said the lawsuit is a “thinly veiled attempt to use Asian Americans to destroy racial diversity on every campus across the country.”
The timing could not be better for affirmative action opponents.
The recent replacement of retired Justice Anthony Kennedy – who wrote the 4-3 majority opinion in the University of Texas case – with the more conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh could give them a better chance of winning at the Supreme Court, should the case get that far.
And the Trump administration has taken an increasingly aggressive stance against affirmative action.
The Department of Justice launched a separate investigation into Harvard last year after Asian-American groups filed a complaint saying it discriminates in admissions.
In July, the department rescinded Obama-era guidelines encouraging the use of race in admissions decisions and suggested race-neutral policies.
In August, it submitted a legal brief backing the case against Harvard. And last month it announced it was also investigating Yale in response to complaints from Asian-American applicants alleging discrimination.
A majority of Americans say merit alone should determine who is admitted to colleges, according to Gallup. At the same time, surveys from the Pew Research Centre show that a majority support programmes to increase diversity at colleges.
At least one group of Asian-Americans is standing firmly behind Harvard: those who got in. Many of the people set to testify for the university are current students or alumni. Asian-American professors are also supporting their employer.
On the other side are many Asian Americans who were rejected and their parents.
Chen, who aced 17 Advanced Placement classes in high school, said he holds no grudge against Harvard and is more offended by what he perceives as a “patronising” admissions process.
Without access to his application file, he acknowledged that he cannot be sure that Harvard would have accepted him even if racial considerations were discontinued.
He will not testify at the trial, but Students for Fair Admissions liked an opinion piece he wrote last month for a Vanderbilt publication.
“We have created institutions that fail to reward merit, losing sight of the American dream and failing our citizens,” Chen wrote.
“We are trying to combat past inequalities with, ironically, additional inequality.”
Additional reporting by Reuters