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Harvard bias trial: why is Edward Blum fighting for the rights of Asian-Americans?

Edward Blum is known for organising legal challenges to affirmative action policies and voting rights laws

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 10:40am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 9:43pm

Harvard University’s secretive admissions process will undergo a rare public dissection in a trial starting this week of allegations that the Ivy League school discriminates against Asian-Americans.

Harvard officials, from the admissions team to a former president, will be asked to explain and defend under oath how the elite university considers race when it selects a class.

Some Harvard students and alumni, including Asian-Americans, are also expected to testify in support of race-conscious admissions and the benefits of campus diversity.

But none of the Asian-Americans who the lawsuit claims were victims of racial bias are expected to take the witness box in federal court in Boston.

Their identities are undisclosed, and the details of their stories largely unknown except to confidants and lawyers who questioned them before the trial.

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The public voice of Harvard’s legal foe is Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, the group that sued.

Blum, 66, who is white and lives in Florida and Maine, is known for organising legal challenges to affirmative action policies and voting rights laws.

He championed the claim that the race-conscious admission policy of the University of Texas was unconstitutional, through a lawsuit on behalf of a white woman named Abigail Fisher whose application had been denied.

Is he concerned about discrimination against Asian-Americans? My answer is no way
Janelle Wong

The Supreme Court upheld the UT policy in 2016.

In contrast with the Fisher case and other landmark litigation on college admissions, Blum said those who allege they were wronged by Harvard will remain unnamed in the trial starting Monday. They are, he said, members of his group.

“As the court and the parties understand, these students will remain anonymous because of the harassment and social media ugliness that public disclosure would allow,” Blum said.

“The parties recognised that the harassment and threats made to Abigail Fisher during her lawsuit against the University of Texas compelled everyone to keep the identities of these students anonymous.”

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A group called Asian American Coalition for Education and others rallied Sunday afternoon in Boston in support of the lawsuit. But critics question Blum’s agenda.

“Is he concerned about discrimination against Asian-Americans?” said Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland, who supports the Harvard policy.

“My answer is no way.”

Nicole Ochi, supervising lawyer at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, a group helping defend Harvard in the trial, told Politico: “Ed Blum is just trying to use Asian Americans as a cover for his true agenda of changing policies that will ultimately benefit white students who already have the most advantages in the admissions process and in life.”

Blum acknowledged that he had sought out Asian-Americans whose stories would provide examples for the case, much as he looked for white students to launch cases elsewhere.

He said that approach was no different from how other legal interest groups recruit plaintiffs to combat discrimination.

“The cornerstone mission of this organisation is to eliminate the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions,” Blum said.

“Period. We make no bones about that.”

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Courts sometimes shield identities of alleged victims in civil suits. Before the trial, Harvard challenged the standing of Blum’s group to sue. But US District Judge Allison Burroughs ruled that the case should proceed.

The trial, which could last three weeks or more, is the latest round in the long-running debate over affirmative action.

However Burroughs rules, both sides expect the verdict to be appealed. Blum said he hopes to push the issue back to the Supreme Court in an effort to overturn precedents that allow universities, within certain limits, to consider race in admissions.

The pivotal vote in the 2016 ruling upholding UT’s policy was Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has since retired and been replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Students for Fair Admissions filed its lawsuit against Harvard in 2014, alleging that the university limits the number of Asian-Americans admitted to its undergraduate college in an effort to boost applicants from other racial and ethnic groups.

The group also alleged that Harvard has not given adequate consideration to how it might create a diverse student body without resorting to affirmative action.

After Harvard, Yale is now being investigated for discriminating against Asian-American applicants

Harvard denies the allegations. The university says it follows Supreme Court guidance, with race as one of many factors in a “holistic” review of applications, alongside grades, rigour of classes, test scores, extracurricular activities, family background and other information.

In the last admission cycle, 42,749 applicants sought to enter Harvard’s freshman class. The university offered admission to 1,962, fewer than 5 per cent, one of the nation’s lowest rates.

Of those admitted, 23 per cent were Asian-American. That’s far higher than the Asian-American share of the nation’s population – which is about 6 per cent, according to the census.

But critics of affirmative action say there probably would be more Asian-Americans at Harvard and other elite schools, on the basis of their academic credentials, if race were not a factor.

Regardless, Harvard says the Asian-American share of its admitted class has grown significantly in the past decade.

The first witness expected in the trial is Harvard’s long-time dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons. Others likely to be called include former Harvard president, Drew Gilpin Faust, and various admissions officers and administrators.

Jin Hee Lee, senior deputy director of litigation for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Legal Defence and Educational Fund, said the NAACP group expects to call three Harvard students to testify – one Vietnamese-American, one African-American and one biracial student of Mexican and African-American background. It will also call a Chinese-American graduate to testify, Lee said.

Lee said these witnesses will vouch for the educational importance of diversity on the Harvard campus.

“They will also talk about how integral race is to their own identity,” she said.