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Harvard Admissions Officers Specifically Trained on ‘Use of Race’

By Mai-Linh Ton
By Michael E. Xie, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard admissions officers received training on the use of race in admissions decisions at least two years in a row, according filings released last week as a part of an ongoing lawsuit alleging the College discriminates against Asian Americans applicants.

The documents—filed in court by the plaintiff in the suit, Students for Fair Admissions, last week—state admissions officers participated in “oral training” that included discussion of the “use of race” in the fall of 2013 and the fall of 2014.

Two admissions officers, whose names were redacted from the public filings, led the meetings, which focused on “casework” and “diversity.”

The filings mark the most recent development in the years-long lawsuit brought by SFFA in 2014. The documents shed light on some previously unknown details of the College’s secretive admissions process.

In a heavily redacted portion of SFFA’s submission, the plaintiff details the substance of the two meetings. The trainings covered three general topics: a review of testing data by race, an analysis of demographic trends with a focus on “Hispanic and Native” populations, and a breakdown of “cultural communities and involvements on campus.”

“Admissions officers also were told that ‘[r]egardless of economic background, Black students’ experiences are impacted by racial bias, both explicit and implicit,’” lawyers for SFFA wrote in the filings. “No such instruction was given with respect to Asian-American applicants.”

Admissions officers also reviewed several statistics meant to contextualize the “demographics” and “experiences” of potential applicants. This included the fact that one year, 49,008 Asian American test takers scored higher than 700 on the math section of the SAT while only 2,101 African Americans did so.

The topics SFFA alleges cropped up in Harvard’s internal meetings are commonly broached in admissions offices across the country, said Ed Boland, a former admissions officer at Yale University. He said these conversations are necessary at schools that—like Harvard—take a holistic approach to admissions.

“If you really are doing a holistic assessment of a student, those are some of the primary areas that are touched upon,” Boland said. “Those factors are helpful background information someone should have as they go into discussions of individual students.”

Lawyers for Harvard wrote in their filings that the College stresses a holistic approach to evaluating applications when it trains new admissions officers.

“Training for admissions officers emphasizes the need to take an individualized approach to evaluating applicants by considering all factors in the application and considering how the applicant will contribute to the overall class,” the document reads.

SFFA lawyers write in their filings that official Harvard “Reading Procedures” do not tell first application readers how or if they should employ race when scoring applications. But the readers are “permitted” to consider an applicant’s race when assigning an overall score, per the SFFA filings.

Both Harvard and SFFA submitted hundreds of pages of documents last week in an effort to persuade the judge to dismiss the suit before it goes to trial. But experts—and the judge herself—have said that outcome is unlikely.

The trial date is set for Oct. 15, 2018.

Correction: June 25, 2018

A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that, one year, 49,008 Asian American applicants to Harvard scored higher than 700 on the math section of the SAT while only 2,101 African Americans did so. In fact, that statistic refers to Asian American and African American test takers, not to applicants.

—Staff writer Michael E. Xie can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEXie1.

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