Harvard Admissions Off The Hook (But What About Those Legacies?)

Since the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. Department of Education has labored over countless cases of prejudice against Blacks and other underrepresented minorities in higher education.

But howls of a different kind of discrimination have risen over educational plains in recent years, with critics charging that schools like Harvard use quotas to maintain an artificial racial balance in the student body, limiting the number of Asian-Americans admitted despite their high standards of achievement.

However, after an extensive investigation into Harvard's admissions practices, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education announced in October that it found no evidence of wrongdoing at the College.

Instead, after reviewing admissions in the years from 1979-1989, the department agreed with what Harvard had argued all along--that Asian-Americans are admitted at a lower rate than whites because the College gives a preference, or a "tip," to children of alumni and recruited athletes, groups that includes few Asian-Americans.

"While these preferences have an adverse affect on Asian-Americans, we determined that they were long standing and legitimate, and not a pretext of discrimination," Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Michael L. Williams said.


In its defense, Harvard also points to a dramatic increase in the percentage of Asian-Americans admitted each year. Asian-Americans comprise 20 percent of the class of 1994, as compared to 6 percent of the class admitted in 1979. But the College's Asian-American acceptance rate still falls 4 percent short of the white acceptance rate, which is approximately 17 percent.

In its two-year investigation, the Department of Education pored over thousands of applications, 10 years of data and hundreds of interviews with admissions officers in what one spokesperson called "the most complicated undertaking ever" for the department.

Although many anticipated that the intensive review might reveal some wrongdoing, University administrators boasted that Harvard emerged from the review in perfect form.

"[The report] seems to refer to general approval of admissions policies," said Daniel Steiner '54, the University's vice-president and general counsel. He added last week, "The admissions operation at Harvard is the envy of universities across the country."

Contradictions and Criticisms

But despite Harvard's apparent triumph, the Education Department report obtained by the press, civil rights group and top-ranking officials on Capitol Hill prompted Further criticism above and beyond the issue of Asian-American admissions. Certain details of the government's findings appeared to contradict some assertions made by the admissions office throughout the last several decades.

For one, the Education Department reported that it found no evidence to substantiate Harvard's claims that Asian-Americans receive a special "ethnic" read, as well as an affirmative action tip, in the admissions process.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 denied that aspect of the report's findings, arguing that the Department of Education had insufficient data to draw such conclusions, since they were forced to rely on written records and interviews and did not have access to meetings in which admissions officers discussed applications.

Another finding seemed to contradict the admissions office's claim that it gives tips to children of alumni and recruited athletes only when all other factors are equal. The Department of Education found that accepted students in those categories scored significnatly lower on average in every category used by the College to judge applicants, with the sole exception of the athletic rating.

OCR found written notes on application folders that indicated that legacies and recruited athletes might receive a larger advantage than the admissions office admits.