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Last November, the Project on Fair Representation filed suit against Harvard, alleging that the admissions office discriminates against Asian and Asian-American applicants. Critical to their lawsuit was the fact that the percent of Harvard students identifying as Asian has been constant while the number of Asian college students has risen nationally. Moreover, they argue that the lack of year-to-year fluctuation in the proportion of Asian freshmen indicates a quota. We agree that these statistics are troubling, but the solution is not to eliminate affirmative action. On the contrary, we continue to believe that affirmative action and race-conscious admissions policies are vital elements in ensuring a diverse Harvard that benefits all its students.
To be sure, the statistics cited by the lawsuit deserve investigation. Though this lawsuit seems more like a fishing expedition designed to dredge for the unlikely smoking gun, it is important that potential evidence of a racial quota system be thoroughly explored. It almost goes without saying that any such system would be contrary to the values for which Harvard fundamentally stands. Racial quotas would be in stark contrast to notions of inclusion, open-mindedness, and, indeed, diversity. Placing caps on the number of Asian and Asian-Americans admitted in order to promote other minority students in the name of diversity would be self-defeating.
The lawsuit argues that socioeconomic affirmative action can provide a way to achieve diversity. Here, we strongly agree. Harvard has been a leader in recognizing the burdens that finances can place on high school students. We are proud to attend a university that acknowledges the problem of poverty in its admissions process, and Harvard’s revolutionary Financial Aid Initiative certainly has helped provide free or low-cost education for those less well off.
Of course, we also know that Harvard is not as socioeconomically diverse as it could be. In the most recent freshman survey conducted by The Crimson, over one-third of students reported family incomes above $250,000—representative of approximately 2 percent of Americans. That we have more work to do, however, does not negate the gains we have already made.
Where we diverge from the lawsuit, though, is on the key importance of race. The American story is not a race-blind one told just about the rich and the poor. Both the ongoing national dialogue and campus conversation about criminal justice and policing should remind us that we live in a painfully racially aware society. We know that young black men are much more likely to be killed by police than white men.
Here’s what else we know. We know that job seekers with black names are far less likely to be offered an interview than those with white names. We know that African American and Hispanic professionals are underrepresented in STEM fields. We know that our political institutions are largely dominated by white males. The list goes on.
Fundamentally, our society is still striving toward a not-yet-realized goal of racial equality. Ending Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy—or all similar policies nationally, as the lawsuit seeks—would starkly reduce access to higher education for African-American and Hispanic students.
Affirmative action is not just an abstract policy issue. As Harvard students, we know firsthand the benefits of diversity. We know that we don’t have all the answers or all the experiences or all the perspectives the world has to offer at the ripe age of 18. We learn not only from professors, but also from each other. We learn from international student sitting next to us in section or the entryway-mate from the other side of the country. And yes, we learn by engaging in frank and honest discussions about race with people who know what it is like to have a skin color different from ours. Harvard should be a transformational place, and if this lawsuit succeeds, it will fail to achieve one fundamental part of that mission.
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