In the end, there was no smoking gun, no obscure piece of evidence showing that Harvard used quotas to keep Asian Americans out of the College.
Instead, after reviewing thousands of applications, 10 years of data and countless interviews with admissions officers, the Department of Education found that Harvard had been right all along: Asian Americans are admitted at a lower rate than whites because children of alumni and recruited athletes--groups that include few Asian Americans--are given a preference in the admissions process.
Thus, the Department's probe into Harvard's admissions policies ultimately came down to a question of judgement: should Harvard be allowed to follow policies that effectively limit the number of Asian Americans admitted to the College?
In its seven-page report to President Derek C. Bok, the Department answered with an unequivocal "yes."
"While these preferences have an adverse affect on Asian Americans, we determined that they were longstanding and legitimate, and not a pretext of discrimination," said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Michael Williams in a prepared statement.
But that response left a few scholars, students and interest groups thinking that the Department had hidden behind the law, turning its back on a clear-cut case of wrongful discrimination.
"There's a difference between what is legally right and what is morally correct," said Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, a noted civil liberties expert. "There is no question that Harvard is wrong... The legacy admissions just perpetuates racism."
"We believe the preferences that Harvard uses--in particular the legacy preference and the recruited athlete preference--are tantamount to affirmative action for whites, and it perpetuates the white establishment," said Kathy O. Turner, acting executive director of the San Francisco-based group Chinese for Affirmative Action.
All along, Harvard officials have cited several facts to counter the discrimination charges. They noted that Asian Americans now make up nearly 20 percent of the class, far more than they did a mere decade ago.
During the investigation, officials alsorevealed that applications from Asian-Americanstudents are given an extra reading by anadmissions officer sensitive to Asian-Americancultures and experiences. And if an applicantcould show that Asian American ethnicity played asignficiant role in his or her life, it could makea difference in admissions, Harvard said.
But upon further examination, the Departmentfound that athletes and legacies were receivingsignificant boosts in the admissions process, farmore than Asian Americans.
The Department said it "found little or noevidence of an ethnic `tip' being given to AsianAmerican applicants. There were no readers'comments that suggested that an applicant's Asianethnicity was a significant or important factor indeciding to admit the applicant in the same waythat being a legacy or a recruited athlete wasinstrumental in admitting applicants."
"While the various `tips' or preferences couldnot be weighed or defined precisely, it was clearthat the ethnic tip for Asians was significantlyless instrumental than `tips' for legacies andrecruited athletes in the determining whether ornot to admit an applicant," the report continued.
Nonetheless, the Department concluded thedecision to give a "tip" to Asian Americans was amatter of institutional policy, and that failureto do did not violate the Civil Rights Act of1964.
But for advocates like Dershowitz, that line ofdefense is just a means to disguise wrongfuldiscrimination.
"[Asian Americans] clearly get a big whack--nota tip--in the direction against them," saidDershowitz. "Harvard wants a student body thatposesses a certain racial balance."
"I think the report was sloppy," Dershowitzadded. "I have absolutely no faith in the Harvardsystem of admissions.