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In Harvard Admissions Trial, Former FAS Dean Smith Defends Namesake Committee’s Work

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith at the HAA meeting Commencement 2017.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith at the HAA meeting Commencement 2017. By Helen Y. Wu
By Alexandra A. Chaidez and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

Former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith took the stand Tuesday to defend his role in maintaining the College’s race-conscious admissions practices on the seventh day of Harvard’s high-profile admissions trial.

Specifically, Smith spent much of his roughly three-hour long testimony defending the conclusions of a committee he formed in 2017 to research race-neutral alternatives to affirmative action. The “Smith Committee” concluded that "Harvard could not both achieve its diversity interests and achieve other equally important educational outcomes, such as academic excellence” — a finding Smith stood by on the witness stand Tuesday.

Smith's testimony comes during the second week of a trial that is expected to conclude in early November. At stake is whether or not Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, as anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions alleges in its 2014 suit against the University. Among other charges, SFFA claims that Harvard has not fulfilled the Supreme Court’s requirement that colleges should give “serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives” to race-based affirmative action.

Smith said in his testimony that he selected the other two members of his committee — Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana — for their understandings of the admissions process and the undergraduate educational experience, respectively. In discussions of their findings, the three were often joined by attorneys from the University’s Office of the General Counsel.

According to the committee’s final report, the percentage of admitted students with the highest academic ratings on the admissions office’s internal scale “would be expected to drop from 76% to 66%,” if a race-neutral alternative was implemented.

“The committee felt [this change] was a significant drop,” Smith said Tuesday.

This is not the first time the Smith Committee has entered the courtroom — SFFA expert witness Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, an education researcher and fellow at the Century Foundation, testified about the committee Monday, charging that the group did not adequately consider race-neutral alternatives.

Smith also noted that the College already tried one measure that has been suggested as a race-neutral alternative — eliminating Early Action admissions — and this did not increase diversity. With the Early Action program, students can apply to the College in the fall and receive a non-binding offer of admission by mid-December.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to eliminate this program in 2007. By 2011, Early Action was reinstated after Smith and the Faculty concluded that the program’s absence “wasn’t helping” and “was at times hurting” Harvard’s admissions process — specifically, the College’s ability to retain high-performing admits of underrepresented minority backgrounds.

The students, rather than applying in the Regular Decision pool, were taking their talents to colleges and universities which continued to offer Early Action or Early Decision programs, Smith testified Tuesday.

“While this race-neutral alternative may work for other institutions, it’s our experience — our recent experience — that it does not work for us,” Smith said.

SFFA lawyer J. Scott McBride asked Smith if race-neutral alternatives were rejected by the committee because they may affect the status of legacy admission, the special consideration the children of Harvard graduates in the admissions process. Smith denied this claim.

“I can envision a simulation where you would eliminate the consideration of race of one factor among many but you still have the consideration of alumni,” Smith said.

In the end, Smith said the committee "felt that no racial alternative could substitute the consideration of race."

"I think it’s a part of the applicant’s experiences,” Smith said. “It's not necessarily an impact on every applicant’s record, but in many cases the experiences of the cultural and racial background has affected their life.”

Smith is not the first top Harvard administrator to take the stand; Dean of Admissions Rakesh Khurana finished his testimony Tuesday morning. Former University President Drew G. Faust is scheduled to appear in court within the next week. Smith said he spent a significant amount of time preparing for his three-hour testimony — he even took a sabbatical from his position as a professor of engineering and applied sciences.

Harvard lawyer Seth P. Waxman ’73 ended the former dean’s testimony on a moment of levity.

“Go back to your sabbatical,” Waxman said.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @a_achaidez.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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