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Months In, Some Students Still Skeptical of Admissions Lawsuit

Several Asian American student leaders are critical of the ongoing affirmative action case

Harvard acceptance letters are sealed by members of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid prior to being mailed off.
Harvard acceptance letters are sealed by members of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid prior to being mailed off.
By Daphne C. Thompson, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: October 28, 2015, at 6:39 p.m.

As the plaintiffs of a lawsuit against Harvard continue to allege that its admissions policies discriminate against Asian American applicants, some students have questioned the College’s transparency on the issue, but a group of Asian and Asian American student leaders on campus are still not convinced of the plaintiffs’ claims.

The lawsuit, filed last November by anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, accuses Harvard of enacting illegal quotas to limit the number of Asian American students admitted to the College. Edward Blum, the man organizing the lawsuit, previously advocated against race-based affirmative action in the high-profile 2013 case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin—now slated for a return to the U.S. Supreme Court this December.

The allegations have attracted a lot of attention from outside media outlets, and Harvard administrators have said that the lawsuit represents a threat to values of diversity they hold dear.

Several Asian American student leaders at Harvard, though, are skeptical of the plaintiffs’ logic. According to Alex J. Pong ’16, a Chinese American student who is a president of Harvard’s Asian American Association, the lawsuit represents another attack on affirmative action by Blum, “just using a different lens this time.” Blum declined to comment for this story.

“It’s very clear that this lawsuit has an agenda that’s not actually about helping Asian Americans and Asians,” Pong said.

Phebe J. Hong ’16, an Undergraduate Council representative who is Chinese American, agreed with Pong and argued that the fact that the lawsuit did not originate from within the Asian American community is troubling.

“The truth is, this lawsuit was neither initiated by Asian Americans, nor is it supported by a majority of Asian Americans,” Hong said.

Students for Fair Admissions does purport to represent a number of anonymous Asian American rejected and prospective applicants and their parents. The group recruited complainants last year through a site dubbed “Harvard Not Fair.”

Still, said Hong and other students, the plaintiffs cannot claim to speak for all Asian Americans.

“There is no singular ‘Asian American community’ that is dissatisfied with Harvard admissions,” said Kirin Gupta ’16, an intern at the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations who is Indian American. Gupta argued that factors such as immigration and class differences make the term “Asian American” “a legally negligent characterization of many diverse communities.”

While the plaintiffs’ complaint advocates for race-neutral admissions because “it is lamentable for Harvard to lump all Asian Americans together in the admissions process,” Shaiba Rather ’17, a UC representative who is South Asian, took issue with the plaintiffs’ claim that Harvard considers its applicants as members of broad racial categories, not as individuals.

Jenny J. Choi ’16, a Crimson columnist who is Korean American, added that the discourse surrounding the lawsuit perpetuates the harmful perception of Asian Americans as “model minorities”—hardworking, compliant, and disproportionately successful.

Although several student leaders interviewed were highly critical of the lawsuit, some students have raised concerns about the transparency of Harvard’s admissions practices in light of the ongoing litigation.

In a Crimson op-ed earlier this year, undergraduate leaders of the Asian American Brotherhood—a social and service organization geared toward Asian American men—addressed the lawsuit, condemning the “use of an unofficial quota in university admissions” but acknowledging that it was still unclear whether Harvard in fact employs one.

“We don’t know exactly what is going on behind the closed doors of admissions offices,” the students wrote, calling on universities like Harvard to promote “greater transparency within their admissions process, and releasing the ethnographic statistics of their applicant pool.”

“We wish that Harvard were large enough to accommodate all who wish to study here,” they wrote. “Given that it isn’t, we should work to ensure that the available spots are accorded to those who most deserve them.”

Pong, for his part, also said he would not approve of the use of quotas, although he emphasized that he does not know if Harvard uses them.

“It’s really hard to judge what is going on here, but if there is a quota in place, it would really be problematic,” Pong said.

Still, on the whole, several student leaders seem to align with Harvard’s defense. Choi, Gupta, and other students criticized the plaintiffs’ argument that affirmative action policies have a “stigmatizing effect on the supposed beneficiaries of these policies”—namely, black and Latino applicants—who suffer from being “academically mismatched” to elite schools.

Much like Harvard officials have defended their affirmative action policies on the grounds that they are critical for diversity, Gupta and others defended the College’s use of affirmative action as necessary to creating a diverse campus and righting what Gupta called Harvard’s “legacies of deep complicity in systemic racial oppression.”

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

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