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Harvard, SFFA Spar Over Key Takeaways from Admissions Trial

Harvard Press Conference
Seth P. Waxman '73 and William F. Lee '72 speak to members of the press outside John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse immediately following the conclusion of the three-week-long Harvard admissions trial.

Harvard and Students For Fair Admissions continued to spar over whether the College’s admissions process discriminates against Asian-American applicants in court documents filed Wednesday.

The briefs — each 75 pages long and split into separate “proposed findings of fact” and “proposed conclusions of the law” sections — summarize what SFFA and Harvard see as the most relevant testimony and evidence from a three-week trial that started mid-October.

Wednesday’s documents mark the latest filings in a four-year-old lawsuit challenging the legality of the College’s admissions process. The case, which legal experts say could go to the United States Supreme Court, could shape the future of affirmative action in colleges and universities around the country.

The Harvard brief argues that the College has a legitimate interest in racial and ethnic diversity to fulfill its educational mission and that the College is incapable of achieving such diversity with any race-neutral alternatives.

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“SFFA failed to show that Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian-American applicants on the basis of their race,” the filing reads.

The SFFA filing states that though Harvard argues it promotes diversity, some forms of diversity — namely, religious, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity — are lacking on campus.

“There are 23 times as many wealthy students on campus as poor students,” the filing states. The benefits of geographic diversity “are lacking too at Harvard.”

A central issue in both briefs was the statistical analysis of the admissions process that each side presented at trial. Harvard’s expert, Berkeley professor David E. Card, and SFFA’s expert, Duke professor Peter S. Arcidiacono, offered dueling interpretations of the College’s admissions data. Card argued the data shows Asian-American applicants did not face a noteworthy disadvantage, while Arcidiacono alleged statistics analysis showed sustained discrimination.

Both sides reiterated in the briefs statistical arguments they made during trial, focusing on the personal ratings of Asian-American applicants.

“Despite their superiority in academics, extracurriculars, and alumni overall ratings, as well as their parity with white applicants in school support and alumni personal ratings, Asian Americans receive lower personal ratings than white applicants and do not outperform them in the overall rating,” the SFFA filing reads.

SFFA alleges Harvard disadvantages Asian-American applicants with its personal ratings — numerical scores the College assigns to each applicant. The scores, which range from 1 to 6, assess qualities like humor and grit.

“More than 21% of white applicants receive a personal rating of 1 or 2, as compared to 17% of Asian Americans,” the SFFA filing reads.

The Harvard filing criticized SFFA for attributing the disparity to racial bias.

“There is no factual, logical, or statistical basis to conclude that factors outside the data explain the association between Asian-American ethnicity and stronger academic and extracurricular ratings, while racial bias explains the association between Asian-American ethnicity and weaker personal ratings,” the brief states.

The Harvard brief's proposed conclusion of law is SFFA lacks the standing to sue. According to precedent, only individuals with “a direct stake in the outcome” may invoke federal judicial power, the brief explains.

“[The lawsuit] is instead a vehicle for the interests of its founder, Edward Blum, and the other controlling members of SFFA’s Board of Directors, Richard and Abigail Fisher—all of whom lack a concrete stake in the outcome and therefore would not have been permitted to sue on their own behalf,” the filing reads.

Abigail N. Fisher is a white woman who lost an affirmative action lawsuit against the University of Texas at Austin, which she sued after being denied admission to the school.

Harvard also argued the court should conclude that the school does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants and that it considers race in its admissions processes as allowed by judicial precedent.

SFFA has previously defended its right to sue on behalf of its members. In its latest brief, SFFA stated it “has members who applied to Harvard who were denied admission, and who are ready and able to apply to transfer if Harvard ceased its discriminatory practices” — evidence of a direct stake in the outcome and of a potential for redress.

Attorneys for Harvard and SFFA have until Jan. 23 to submit rebuttals to Wednesday’s filings. Judge Allison D. Burroughs will hear an additional set of arguments from both sides on Feb. 13.

—Staff Writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff Writer Sahar M. Mohammadzadeh can be reached at sahar.mohammadzadeh@thecrimson.com.

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