UPDATED: April 24, 2014, at 12:28 p.m.
In an effort to critique Harvard’s race-based affirmative action policies, the legal defense fund Project on Fair Representation launched a site earlier this month seeking for a possible lawsuit students who claim they were not admitted to Harvard because of their race.
The site, entitled “Harvard Not Fair,” alleges that Harvard “continues to use an applicant’s race and ethnicity as an admission criterion” and that its policies are “neither fair nor legal,” a claim that the University has repeatedly said is untrue.
Edward Blum, who serves as director of POFR where he helps provide clients with pro-bono law services to challenge race-based affirmative action policies, said that nearly all top colleges would have made “perfect targets” to challenge race as a criteria for admissions decisions, but he chose to focus partly on Harvard because of its large applicant pool.
“We are highly confident that during the course of a case in which admission records are examined, emails are examined, admissions officers are deposed, we will uncover a systematic program of limiting Asians to a specific a percentage year after year after year,” Blum said in an interview.
He added that he believes the majority of the applicants applying to Harvard are well qualified, but still thinks that Harvard may be using illegal, race-based quotas in its admissions process, particularly for students of Asian descent.
“We know that conceivably 80 to 90 percent of those applicants would compete very well at Harvard, and Harvard is going to have to reject qualified students,” Blum said. But he added that being “rejected because of your race or ethnicity is a very different reason than maybe a lower SAT score or GPA, or number of community service hours, or a number of factors.”
While Blum, who recently helped provide legal representation for Abigail Fisher to challenge admissions policies for the University of Texas before the Supreme Court, did not provide a specific number for the students who had already signed up, he said that “dozens, and dozens, and dozens” have done so. The effort is not without precedent, as many other rejected applicants have tried to challenge the University on similar grounds in the past.
Despite repeated requests for comment, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid did not comment on the “Harvard Not Fair” initiative.
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 asserted in March that Harvard does not use quotas in its admission process.
“Harvard College uses no quotas for the admission of Asian Americans or any other group,” Fitzsimmons wrote in an email. “Harvard does not place limits on excellence. We continue to seek the nation’s and the world’s most promising students from all ethnic, cultural, and religious heritages, and we use our need-based financial aid program to ensure they can afford to attend.”
According to Blum, once a student provides his or her contact information, POFR will get in touch with the individual to learn more about his or her application. The site says that POFR would cover all legal costs if a case were to be pursued. In addition, any contact between POFR and a student would remain confidential unless the individual gives permission to share his or her information.
Blum said that his team of attorneys includes many who possess statistical knowledge, but nobody with direct experience in college admissions.
Some admissions experts question Blum’s claim of an Asian American “quota” at Harvard.
“There are definitely not quotas,” said Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions and director of international admissions at the University of Virginia. “A quota is an exact number, and no school is ever going to have a quota because they know it is illegal. Now, they may have a goal, and a goal is not a quota. That is where you get into semantics.”
Muth added that while he considers it tangibly harder based on statistics for Asian American students to be admitted to top universities, he doubts that Blum’s choice to specifically focus on Harvard will be effective.
“Why would you want to target Harvard to begin with when you have nearly 40,000 people, virtually all of whom are tremendous students, and to say we can prove that this group has been discriminated against,” Muth said.
In 2011, the New York Times reported that demographic statistics for Harvard’s enrollment over nearly two decades may indicate an Asian “quota” in Harvard’s admissions policies. According to the Times, 20.6 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate enrollment in 1993 identified themselves as Asian Americans, but has remained around 16.5 percent over most of the last decade. However, the number of college-age Asian Americans nearly doubled in that same time period.
—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @trdelwic.