Harvard Study Found Asian-American Admissions Bias, Suit Claims

(Bloomberg) -- Harvard University’s own researchers found statistical evidence that its undergraduate application process discriminated against Asian-American applicants, yet its admissions officials ignored the results and took no action, a group suing for bias claimed.

In 2013, the Harvard Office of Institutional Research said that Asian-Americans should comprise 43.4 percent of the admitted class if they were judged purely on their academic merit, the organization, Students for Fair Admissions, said in a federal court filing Friday.

Asian-Americans should have made up 26 percent of the student body, even after accounting for the Ivy League school’s preferences for the children of alumni and recruited athletes and the university’s more subjective “personal ratings," the Harvard office found, according to the plaintiff’s court filing.

Students for Fair Admissions, which filed suit in 2014, told a federal judge in Boston on Friday that these findings are part of the "incontrovertible" evidence that the university has "engineered the admissions process to achieve" illegal goals. The organization says that Asian-Americans are subject to the same kind of quotas that kept many Jews out of Ivy League colleges in the first half of the 20th century -- and the Trump administration has indicated it is sympathetic to their argument.

In its own filing, Harvard dismissed the analysis from its own researchers as “incomplete, preliminary, and based on limited inputs.’’ It noted that affirmative action opponent Edward Blum leads the group, which says it represents at least a dozen Asian-American students who were rejected from Harvard.

Harvard said the lawsuit was “the latest salvo by ideological opponents of race in university admissions.’’ The university said its policies fully comply with rulings by the U.S Supreme Court, which has said universities may consider an applicant’s race among many factors as part of a holistic admissions process.

“Harvard seeks excellence from its students, but it does not define excellence through a narrow focus on grades and test scores,’’ the college said. “Rather, Harvard’s admissions process is designed to identify engaged and creative students who will take their place as the leaders of the next generation and who will be equipped to deal with a complex, diverse world.”

The university noted that the percentage of Asian-Americans in the admitted class has grown by 29 percent during the past decade and now comprises nearly 23 percent of students. Every year, Harvard receives about 40,000 applications for the 1,600 seats in its freshman class.

Ranking System

Yet, in a deposition, Mark Hansen, a former Harvard researcher, was asked, “Do you have any explanation other than intentional discrimination for your conclusions regarding the negative association between Asians and the Harvard admissions process?”

“I don’t," Hansen responded, according to Friday’s filing.

Duke University Professor Peter Arcidiacono, an expert witness for the plaintiffs, reviewed six years of admissions data. Arcidiacono found the process disproportionately harms Asian-American applicants. Harvard scores applicants on a scale of one to six -- with one being best -- based on criteria that includes academic performance, extracurriculars, athletics, personal and an overall score, he said.

Arcidiacono concluded that Asian-American applicants score higher than other racial and ethnic groups on many objective measures -- including test scores, academic achievement and extracurriculars. But Harvard’s admissions officials assign them the lowest scores of any racial group on a “personal rating,” which he called a "subjective" assessment.

‘No Excuse’

“There is no excuse for this, and Harvard cannot offer a single exculpatory explanation that a rational factfinder could accept,’’ the plaintiffs said in their filing. “Asian-American applicants to Harvard are just as “helpful,” “courageous,” and “kind” as white applicants.’’

In summaries of candidates, admissions officers are more likely to describe Asian-Americans as “standard strong,” smart and bright but similar to others, the lawsuit said.

Harvard dismissed the Duke professor’s analysis as “unmoored from the reality of Harvard’s admissions process.’’ The personal rating, the school says, includes a variety of factors that are not fully accounted for in a students’ grades and tests scores. When the holistic factors Harvard considers are taken into account, the process “shows no negative effect of Asian-American ethnicity in the admission process,’’ the university said.

‘Racial Balancing’

The group’s lawyers also said Harvard engages in “racial balancing,’’ to ensure a minimum percentage of students from minority groups. Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton and other elite schools hold what are called “round robin’’ meetings where they share nonpublic information about the racial compositions of their class, according to the lawsuit. Harvard’s admissions office examines these kinds of racial breakdowns as it fine-tunes its admissions decisions, the complaint says.

Harvard said the evidence showed no effort to meet rigid quotas, noting “the racial breakdown of Harvard’s admitted class of students fluctuates considerably from year to year.’’

Harvard announced in March it admitted 4.59 percent of the applicants to its class of 2022. Women represented 50.1 percent of those accepted; African-Americans 15.5 percent; Latinos 12.2 percent; and Native Americans 2 percent, according to the Harvard Crimson. Asian-Americans made up a record 22.7 percent of the class.

A trial is scheduled for October, unless the judge decides beforehand that the evidence warrant a ruling in favor of one side or the other.

The case is Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 14-cv-14176, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

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