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Harvard, SFFA Dispute ‘Discrimination’ in Lower Personal Scores for Asian American Applicants

Office of Admissions and Financial Aid
Anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions accused Harvard admissions officers of assigning discriminatory “personal” ratings to Asian-American applicants and attempting to “racially engineer” incoming classes, according to briefings filed in federal court Friday morning.

The briefings marks the latest development in the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard which SFFA first brought in Nov. 2014,

Using statistical analysis and opinions from outside experts—as well as newly public (though heavily redacted) accounts of Harvard’s highly competitive admissions process—SFFA reported that College admissions officers consistently scored Asian-American applicants lower than applicants of other races on “personal traits” like “positive personality,” “likability,” “kindness,” and “humor.”

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The personal traits rating is one of several factors the Admissions Office considers when making admissions decisions, according to the court filings. Harvard admissions officers numerically rank applicants for their personal traits on a scale of 1 to 6—1 being the highest, and 6 the lowest.

SFFA filings note that Asian-American applicants to Harvard typically score higher than do applicants of any other race on other factors considered in the admissions process—factors including academics, extracurriculars, and recommendations from teachers and college counselors.

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“No rational factfinder could conclude that Harvard’s admissions system complies with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” SFFA argued in its briefing. Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, among other qualities.

Lawyers for the University, in a filing submitted later Friday morning, rejected the notion that any differences in scoring constituted discrimination.

“Nothing in the record suggests any effort by Harvard to limit the number of Asian-American students, which fluctuates considerably from year to year,” Harvard's filing reads.

SFFA also accused Harvard of setting an artificial floor for the admission rate of African-American applicants.

A heavily redacted portion of the briefing further alleges Harvard performs “racial balancing”—that the College works to ensure particular racial groups compose predetermined percentages of the student body. SFFA pointed to the racial demographics of incoming classes, which have remained consistent across the past several years.

Moreover, SFFA argued, the admit rate for African Americans in the years studied closely tracked that of the overall applicant pool—to the tenth of one percent for the College’s admitted Classes of 2017 through 2019.

“The chance of this match occurring in three consecutive years (without direct manipulation) is less than two-tenths of one percent—making it a near certainty that Harvard was purposely setting a floor on the admission rate of those applicants,” SFFA's briefing reads.

Lawyers for Harvard disagreed.

“The extensive record compiled in this case would not permit a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that Harvard pursues quotas, seeks proportional racial representation, or engages in racial balancing,” Harvard’s filing reads. “In particular, no evidence suggests that Harvard seeks to limit representation of any racial group on campus.”

The accusations come in addition to SFFA's charge that Harvard ignored the results of a 2013 internal investigation that found Asian Americans suffered "negative effects" in the College's admissions process. As part of that investigation, Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research concluded in one report that “Asian high achievers have lower rates of admission.”

Harvard disputes the overall validity of the internal analysis as SFFA interprets it.

“Thorough and comprehensive analysis of the data and evidence makes clear that Harvard College does not discriminate against applicants from any group, including Asian-Americans, whose rate of admission has grown 29% over the last decade,” University spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven, wrote in an email.

“Mr. Blum and his organization’s incomplete and misleading data analysis paint a dangerously inaccurate picture of Harvard College’s whole-person admissions process by omitting critical data and information factors, such as personal essays and teacher recommendations, that directly counter his arguments,” she wrote.

SFFA argued the evidence in its favor is so compelling the case does not even require a trial. Harvard argued the opposite—that the case should be decided in the University’s favor without a trial. If neither party is successful in convincing the judge to dismiss the case, the lawsuit will likely go to trial in fall 2018, at which point thousands of more pages of Harvard admissions data will become public.

SFFA's arguments draw heavily from research it attributes to Duke Professor of Economics Peter S. Arcidiacono. According to SFFA filings, Arcidiacono’s research found Asian Americans, while outperforming other racial groups in “many objective measures,” receive disproportionately low scores from Harvard officials on measures of “subjective” personal qualities.

“When it comes to the score assigned by the Admissions Office, Asian-American applicants are assigned the lowest scores of any racial group,” the organization’s lawyers wrote. “By contrast, alumni interviewers (who actually meet the applicants) rate Asian Americans, on average, at the top with respect to personal ratings—comparable to white applicants and higher than African-American and Hispanic applicants.”

Arcidiacono’s statistical models conclude that “Asian Americans are penalized in selection for admission” because of their race, according to SFFA filings.

The expert for Harvard, Professor of Economics David E. Card of the University of California, Berkeley, came to a radically different conclusion by employing a model that considers other factors—like legacy status or athletic recruitment—that Arcidiacono excluded from his models.

Card found that, “to be admitted to Harvard, applicants must have multiple areas of strength, and race is not a determinative factor.”

Harvard dismisses the idea that its admissions process is discriminatory.

“Harvard will continue to vigorously defend our right, and that of other colleges and universities nationwide, to seek the educational benefits that come from a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions, from its capacity for academic excellence to its ability to help create a campus community that gives every student the opportunity to learn from peers with a wide variety of academic interests, perspectives, and talents,” Cowenhoven wrote in a statement.

Friday’s filing deadline commences what is known as the summary judgement phase of the lawsuit, during which the court will review arguments from each legal team and decide whether to dismiss all or parts of the case. Experts—and Judge Burroughs herself—have suggested such an outcome is unlikely. Amicus briefings in favor of summary judgement must be filed by July 30, and those opposed must be submitted a month later.

If the case is not dismissed, a trial will commence Oct. 15 and proceed over the course of roughly three weeks in the U.S. District Court in Boston.

SFFA and Harvard filed their motions for summary judgment Friday alongside several hundred pages of expert deposition.

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

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

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