Less than 24 hours before a high-stakes and high-profile lawsuit challenging Harvard's admissions policies goes to trial, demonstrators took to the streets in Cambridge and Boston to hold two dueling rallies — one pro-Harvard and one pro-Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing the University.
Demonstrators began showing up to the Harvard rally — held close to campus in Harvard Square — around 11 a.m. Some sported beads, others “#notyourwedge” buttons adorned with images of cheese, and still others donned blue t-shirts decorated with University seals and the motto “Diversitas.”
The protest in the Square lasted for roughly two hours and saw speeches from students, alumni, and locals — all of them arguing in favor of the College’s race-conscious admissions policies. SFFA is suing Harvard over allegations that it discriminates against Asian-American applicants, a charge the University has repeatedly denied.
In Cambridge, it all started with music: 21 Colorful Crimson, a band made up of 21 Harvard students, sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as onlookers and members of the press snapped photos. Participants — including students, faculty, alumni, and activists — swayed to the music and lofted signs reading “#DefendDiversity” and “Equality Opportunity Solidarity.”
Four miles away in Copley Square, it was a different — if parallel — universe.
Plastering themselves with heart-shaped SFFA stickers, participants in the Copley rally spent the afternoon loudly affirming their belief that Harvard’s admissions system is discriminatory. That demonstration, which kicked off at noon and stretched on for four-and-a-half hours, also saw speeches from Harvard students, alumni, and locals.
And there was music, too. At one point, a five-and-a-half-year-old girl mounted the stage to offer a quavering rendition of “Edelweiss,” drawing extended cheering from the crowd.
Just before 3 p.m., SFFA President Edward Blum took the stage, spurring applause and scattered cheers of “Thank you, Edward!”
“Let me be clear: The mission of Students for Fair Admissions is to end racial classifications and preferences in college admissions,” he said. “When you treat and judge individuals differently because of their race, it frays the social fabric of a college campus, which will ultimately fray the social fabric of a nation.”
Blum spearheaded SFFA’s suit against Harvard four years ago, though it wasn’t the first time he sought to radically alter the way American universities select students. Since 2008, Blum has litigated a series of cases meant to cancel the consideration of race in college admissions.
None of those were successful. But Blum is hopeful he’ll have better luck this time around.
The Harvard admissions trial — which launches in a Boston courthouse Monday — will likely last for three or four weeks. Either way Judge Allison D. Burroughs ultimately rules, the disappointed party will likely appeal the decision. Experts have said the case could well wind up before the Supreme Court.
If it reaches the Court, the decision probably won’t fall Harvard’s way, analysts say — particularly given the recent confirmation of conversative justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, whose appointment cemented the court’s shift to the right. A ruling in SFFA’s favor from the nation’s highest court could reshape the fate of affirmative action in the country.
Despite the high stakes, speakers and attendees at both rallies largely left the subject of the Court and the destiny of America’s race-conscious admissions policies untouched. Instead, demonstrators on both sides drew on their personal experiences to make their respective cases.
Protesters pointed to their upbringings and racial identities, their own paths through the college admissions process, and their families.
Copley Square protester Sunny Zhao, who is of Asian descent, said he was demonstrating on behalf of his children. He wants them to be able to go to Harvard one day.
“Look at my children,” Zhao said. “Look at the people here’s children. Our children study so hard. Their hard work is not as appreciated. Why? It’s just because we are Asian. That’s unfair.”
For fellow demonstrator Ally Wang, though, it isn't about sending her kids to the world’s top-ranked university.
Wang, who said she is married to a Harvard Medical School professor, said she traveled from New Haven, Conn. to attend Sunday’s demonstration. Wang said she has two sons, one five-year-old and one 10-year-old.
“I don’t really care if my children go to Harvard or not — we probably even kind of have legacy because my husband works for Harvard — but the way Harvard is doing it really hurts,” Wang said.
Over in the Square, Sally Chen ’19 — who supports Harvard and will be testifying in court in coming weeks on behalf of the University — said she is hurting, too.
Chen said she feels “personally unsettled” by the way the media has portrayed Asian-Americans in the lead-up to the trial, calling the representation “one-sided.” She decided to testify in court because she wants to tell her story and offer a fuller picture of what an Asian-American Harvard student looks like.
Chen, who is Chinese-American, grew up in San Francisco as the daughter of “Chinese immigrants who are working class,” she said.
“My dad’s a cook and my mom took care of me and my three sisters — there are four of us total — and when I reviewed my admissions file, that was really picked up on by admissions officers, that I balanced humility and humor and that I understood the view of an outsider,” Chen said.
Still, some speakers Sunday eschewed family background for Harvard history. Protesters pointed to the University’s well-documented discrimination against Jewish students in the early 1900s — and to this past summer, when internal Harvard documents published as part of the suit revealed that College admissions officers appear to give Asian-American applicants lower scores for their personal traits.
Zoey Lee, a high school student in ninth grade who is of Asian descent, said she finds it appalling that Harvard would give applicants like her poorer marks for personality. She said she hopes she will benefit from “equal opportunities” when she applies to college.
“There are many young Asians who are gritty and determined,” Lee said, referencing the fact that the College scores applicants on traits including “humor” and “grit.”
“There are many young Asian-Americans who have a great personality,” she added.
Blum said he thinks Harvard has “systematically discriminated” against Asian-Americans for years. He mentioned yet another summer revelation that stemmed from the suit: the fact that the University’s internal research arm conducted a private study in 2013 that concluded the College’s admissions practices produce “negative effects” for Asian Americans.
“Not only did our experts conclude that Harvard’s admissions practices harm Asian Americans, but so did Harvard’s own internal experts,” Blum said. “Rather than address the study’s results, Harvard’s leaders killed it and then buried it.”
The University never made the internal study public and did not appear to take any significant action based on its findings. In court and in interviews since the existence of the 2013 review became public knowledge, Harvard lawyers and administrators have insisted the study was incomplete, based on limited data, and not meant to definitively evaluate whether the College's admissions office discriminates.
In addition to critiquing the way things work now, some demonstrators offered novel solutions for the future.
Undergraduate Kelley A. Babphavong ’20 stepped behind the microphone in Copley Square to float possible alternatives to Harvard's race-conscious admissions system. She suggested the College pursue a race-blind admissions process that heavily weights applicants’ socioeconomic status.
“It is not mutually exclusive to advocate for diversity while also openly criticizing Harvard for discriminating against a specific racial group,” she said. “Being Asian at Harvard is not easy, and I hope that the eradication of Harvard’s current admissions policies will allow Asians to no longer be discriminated against.”
Shiva Ayyadurai took it several steps further.
Ayyadurai, who is currently campaigning against Elizabeth Warren for a seat in the U.S. Senate, sharply criticized the University in a speech in Copley Square that lasted several minutes. He called the school “the center of the military-industrial complex” and “a hedge fund.”
"If there's a swamp in Washington, I’d argue Harvard is the sewer that feeds that swamp," he said. “Perhaps we should make Harvard a community college.”
The rallies Sunday followed several weeks of student activism on campus, most of it held in support of Harvard’s admissions policies. In the past month or so, undergraduates have organized demonstrations, hosted panels, and even set up pro-affirmative action photoshoots.
Several Harvard affiliates have also intervened directly in the lawsuit. In late August, 25 student and alumni organizations filed an amicus brief arguing for the educational value of race-conscious admissions practices.
Eight students and alumni will be allowed to testify during the forthcoming trial.
— Staff writers Shera S. Avi-Yonah, Alexandra A. Chaidez, Delano R. Franklin, Iris M. Lewis, Mollly C. McCafferty, Aidan F. Ryan, and Samuel W. Zwickel contributed reporting.