Harvard University is widely regarded as America’s most prestigious university. It is also one of its most racist, deliberately using discriminatory and stereotypical ratings of Asian applicants’ personalities as “lacking” and “one-dimensional” to reduce their chances of obtaining admission to the prestigious university.
In 2014, Harvard was sued in federal district court by a coalition named Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) for allegedly violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits all schools which receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race. The suit charged that Harvard discriminates against Asian applicants in undergraduate admissions decisions, using an admissions formula that hinders Asian applicants’ chances of admission by consistently giving them a low “personal rating”—a subjective measure of personality traits such as kindness, courage, and likeability. Through an examination of Harvard’s previously secret admissions data, SFFA was able to show that Asian-American applicants to Harvard face rampant racial discrimination.
Peter Arcidiacono, an economist at Duke University who testified in court on behalf of SFFA, concluded that Asian-American applicants have the lowest chance of admission to Harvard out of all races despite scoring highest in all objective measurements of achievement.
“Race plays a significant role in admissions decisions,” Arcidiacono wrote in his expert report. “Consider the example of an Asian-American applicant who is male, is not disadvantaged, and has other characteristics that result in a 25% chance of admission. Simply changing the race of this applicant to white—and leaving all his other characteristics the same—would increase his chance of admission to 36%. Changing his race to Hispanic (and leaving all other characteristics the same) would increase his chance of admission to 77%. Changing his race to African-American (again, leaving all other characteristics the same) would increase his chance of admission to 95%.”
“Despite being more academically qualified than the other three major racial/ethnic groups (whites, African Americans, and Hispanics), Asian-American applicants have the lowest admissions rates,” Arcidiacono continues. “In fact, data produced by Harvard show that this has been true for every admissions cycle for the classes of 2000 to 2019.”
Professor Arcidiacono was able to trace this discrepancy in admissions rates to the highly subjective “personal rating” which admissions officers at Harvard assign to applicants. “Asian-American applicants, however, do not score as well on the Personal Rating and the Overall Rating relative to other racial/ethnic groups—especially when compared to other groups within the same academic index deciles,” he writes. “But there is no observable reason why this should be so; the testimony from officers and leaders of the Admissions Office is that there is nothing about Asian Americans as a group that would suggest they have less attractive personal qualities. Ratings given by alumni interviewers do not show this pattern.”
“It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along,” Students for Fair Admissions concluded in a court document. “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.”
“What Harvard will not admit (but the record shows) is that race is not only an important factor, it is the dominant consideration in admitting Hispanics and African Americans,” William Consovoy, who represents Students for Fair Admissions, stated in a court filing.
The United States Department of Justice under President Donald Trump joined SFFA in countering Harvard’s discrimination, filing an amicus brief arguing that Harvard University racially profiles its applicants during the admissions process and imposes “a racial penalty by systematically disfavoring Asian-American applicants.” In November 2020, the First Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn an earlier ruling in favor of Harvard. As of February 2021, SFFA has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.
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