Harvard’s student body skews wealthy — and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana indicated in court testimony this week that he’s okay with that.
Khurana stepped to the witness stand around 3 p.m. Monday in the high-stakes and high-profile Harvard admissions trial that could decide the fate of affirmative action in the United States. Adam K. Mortara — the head lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions, the anti-affirmative action group suing the University over its admissions process — rose to face the dean.
Mortara asked whether Khurana is aware that the portion of United States households that draw an annual income of over $150,000 hovers around 5 percent (though CNN reported in 2016 that roughly 11 percent of American citizens rank in that economic category). He then asked whether Khurana is aware that individuals in that income bracket make up roughly 30 percent of Harvard’s student body.
Though there is no definitive data on the matter, The Crimson’s 2018 freshman survey revealed that 54.6 percent of respondents indicated their families make more than $125,000 per year. Seventeen percent of respondents reported an annual income of over $500,000. (Sixty-five percent of the Class of 2022 took the survey and The Crimson did not adjust the data for response bias.)
“Don’t you actually think that Harvard’s class should have a socioeconomic makeup that looks a lot more like America, provided the students were academically qualified to be at Harvard?” Mortara asked Khurana. “Your personal opinion, sir?”
“I don’t,” Khurana replied.
“What is special about wealthy people that Harvard needs to have them overrepresented by a factor of six on its campus?” Mortara asked later.
In response, Khurana said Mortara was missing the point.
“We’re not trying to mirror the socioeconomic or income distribution of the United States,” Khurana said. “What we’re trying to do is identify talent and make it possible for them to come to a place like Harvard.”
In total, Khurana spoke for roughly an hour on the sixth day of the admissions trial, which is slated to last for at least three weeks. The dean will return to the witness stand Tuesday morning.
At stake is whether or not Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, as SFFA alleged when it filed suit against the University in 2014. Khurana is the highest-ranking administrator to testify in the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse to date, though former University President Drew G. Faust is scheduled to appear in court some time in the next week or so.
Khurana arrived at the courthouse sporting a blue blazer, a purple-checkered shirt, and a purple tie. In their first chance at the dean, SFFA lawyers did not spend much time on any one line of questioning, instead drifting from one subject to another.
Portions of the questioning were more substantive than others. In addition to quizzing Khurana about Harvard’s socioeconomic diversity, Mortara asked him about race-neutral alternatives to the College’s race-conscious admissions process. And he pressed the dean on whether Khurana believes the school’s admissions policies disadvantage Asian-American students.
Khurana repeatedly insisted he does not.
“I don’t believe that Harvard College’s admissions process disadvantages Asians,” Khurana said.
The dean seemed slightly tense Monday, often pausing several seconds before responding to Mortara’s inquiries and giving one-word answers.
But there were light-hearted moments, too — such as when Mortara quizzed the dean on the acknowledgements listed in his Ph.D. “thesis.”
“I hope I partially dedicated it to my wife,” Khurana said, spurring laughter in the courtroom.
And sometimes, the SFFA lawyer took things back to basics.
“You’re the dean of Harvard College, correct?” Mortara asked. The dean answered in the affirmative.
“You understand this case is about Harvard admissions, right?”
Khurana again answered in the affirmative.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.