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Harvard, SFFA Debate Whether Race or Income Should Reign Supreme in Admissions Process

Marlyn E. McGrath '70, Harvard's director of admissions, exits the courthouse Friday.
Marlyn E. McGrath '70, Harvard's director of admissions, exits the courthouse Friday. By Amy Y. Li
By Delano R. Franklin and Samuel W. Zwickel, Crimson Staff Writers

Despite appearances, Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions — the anti-affirmative action group suing the University over its admissions policies — don’t disagree on everything.

Both say they think college campuses across the United States should be racially and socioeconomically diverse. They just differ on how to get there.

Harvard long ago chose a race-conscious admissions model in which College reviewers give a “tip” — or preference — to underrepresented minorities. SFFA alleges this system leads the school to reject qualified Asian-American applicants in favor of less deserving individuals from other racial backgrounds. (Harvard has repeatedly denied all charges of discrimination.)

SFFA argues the College should instead pursue a race-neutral alternative known as “class-based affirmative action.” Under this system, admissions officers would use income levels — not race — to decide which students to tip.

Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, an education researcher and fellow at the Century Foundation, took the witness stand Monday morning in the Harvard admissions trial to make the case for income-based candidate evaluation. Kahlenberg, whom SFFA previously paid to analyze College admissions data, spoke for roughly two hours in the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse on the sixth day of the trial.

Kahlenberg argued socioeconomic affirmative action by itself will forge racial and economic diversity on campuses including Harvard’s. He noted other institutions of higher education use this model.

“There's essentially a menu of different options that a number of universities have employed,” Kahlenberg said. “Socioeconomic preferences is one, to start with, that a number of universities have used.”

Harvard administrators and lawyers have repeatedly rejected this idea, asserting only race-conscious admissions policies will produce the diverse student body they say is essential to achieving the school’s educational mission.

Still, the University at least twice explored switching to a race-neutral admissions model. In 2014 and mid-2017, Harvard formed two separate committees to consider the possibility. The first “reached no conclusions,” per a court filing. The second recommended the College stick to its current admissions system.

In a landmark ruling in 2003, the Supreme Court told American colleges and universities they should give “serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives” to race-based affirmative action. The two committees’ work, Harvard argues, meets that Court-mandated requirement. To no one’s surprise, SFFA disagrees.

In coming weeks, Judge Allison D. Burroughs will have to decide whose version of events is most accurate. As she deliberates, she’ll review hours of witness testimony as well as hundreds of pages of previously confidential Harvard documents that bubbled up during the course of the suit.

Administrator after administrator confidently stepped to the stand over the past week to defend the College’s race-conscious admissions process. But evidence presented in court sheds light on previously private moments in Harvard history when top officials seemed a little less sure — and revives a long-running debate over whether race or income should reign supreme in the admissions process.


It started with a website.

In April 2014 — several months before SFFA filed suit against Harvard — the group's president Edward Blum began hunting for Harvard rejects who believed they failed to earn acceptance to the College due to their race. To facilitate that search, he launched the website

The site set off alarm bells in Cambridge.

The day after the website’s debut, Harvard General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83 arranged a meeting with Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70, and Harvard employee Elizabeth B. Yong to discuss “the possibility of a lawsuit against Harvard,” according to documents released as part of the trial.

After a series of internal conversations, Harvard administrators later formed a nearly 30-member committee and tasked it with examining the feasibility of race-neutral alternatives to race-based affirmative action.

The so-called “Ryan Committee,” chaired by former Dean of the Graduate School of Education James E. Ryan, met “approximately” three times in 2014, according to June filing from SFFA lawyers.

The committee's members hailed from across the University’s schools. Among them were Iuliano, former Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, former head of the Office of Institutional Research Erin Driver-Linn, Economics Professor Raj Chetty ’00, and Head Men’s Basketball Coach Tommy Amaker.

Details about the committee and its work are sparse. Harvard has repeatedly cited attorney-client privilege in refusing to release more information about the group, according to an SFFA filing.

What is known is that the committee concluded its work in December 2014. The group ultimately “produced no written work product and reached no conclusions as to whether Harvard could achieve the educational benefits of diversity without using racial classifications in admissions,” according to court documents.

Roughly three years later in July 2017 — for unknown reasons — Harvard officials formed a second committee and gave it the same mission as the first. Former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith chaired the new committee, referred to as the “Smith Committee” in court filings.

That committee was much smaller. Its membership clocked in at three: Fitzsimmons, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and Smith.

The group met seven times between August 2017 and April 2018, according to court filings. Lawyers for Harvard attended each meeting.

Ultimately, the Smith Committee, too, stuck to the status quo.

The group concluded that “at present, no workable race-neutral alternatives could promote Harvard’s diversity-related educational objectives as well as Harvard’s current whole-person race-conscious admissions program while also maintaining the standards of excellence that Harvard seeks in its student body,” according to court documents.


Monday saw a war of statistics months in the making.

Kahlenberg relied on a complex model of Harvard’s admissions process to argue switching to a race-neutral, income-based admissions system would increase the diversity of Harvard’s campus. The University — on Monday and in weeks prior — endeavored to prove the opposite.

Well before heading to court this week, Kahlenberg collaborated with Duke Professor of Economics Peter S. Arcidiacono, another expert witness in SFFA’s employ, to build a model of the Harvard admissions process based on six years of internal data associated with more than 150,000 applications.

The model allowed Kahlenberg and Arcidiacono to assign different weights to various factors Harvard uses to evaluate applicants — factors such as race, legacy status, and socioeconomic background — and then guess at the makeup of the resulting College class.

To test a race-neutral admissions system, Arcidiacono began by “turning off” the racial preference. He then boosted the “tip” given to low-income students.

Kahlenberg presented four variations of this admissions scenario Monday. All predicted an increased percentage of Asian-American admits. Three of the four scenarios led to increased Hispanic enrollment and decreased white enrollment. Every single one of the simulations predicted a decreased percentage of African-American admits.

Kahlenberg’s simluations also generated a shift in socioeconomic makeup. In every scenario, the number of students admissions officers categorize as economically “disadvantaged” increased nearly three-fold.

When pressed by Harvard’s lead trial lawyer, William F. Lee ’72, Kahlenberg said he “can’t think of an example” of a single situation in which a race-neutral admissions process would not lead to sufficient racial diversity on campus.

But Harvard has its own experts.

Relying on analysis from University of California Economics Professor David E. Card, the University argued ahead of the trial that ending race-conscious admissions would severely drive down minority enrollment. Card, who was paid by Harvard for his work, projected that a race-blind admissions process would reduce the number of College students who identify as African-American, Hispanic, or “Other” by roughly 50 percent.

Besides, University lawyers argue, Harvard is already pursuing race-neutral programs that help achieve a diverse student body. Attorneys pointed to the school’s generous financial aid program, its wide-ranging recruitment efforts, and its special consideration of students from “disadvantaged” backgrounds, among other things.

“Harvard’s efforts to promote diversity go far beyond its consideration of race in the admissions process,” lawyers wrote in a June court filing.

Kahlenberg is one of two expert witnesses SFFA’s lawyers are set to examine in the lawsuit. Top Harvard administrators are also taking a grilling.

Khurana began testifying Monday and will return to the witness stand Tuesday morning. Smith and former University President Drew G. Faust are slated to follow him some time this week.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @delanofranklin_.

—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel.

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