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In Wake of Admissions Lawsuit Decision, Khurana Agrees Harvard Must Become Aware of Biases

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana. By Delano R. Franklin
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Delano R. Franklin, Crimson Staff Writers

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said in a Friday interview he agrees with the verdict in the Harvard admissions lawsuit asserting that the College’s admissions processes are not perfect.

Federal judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled on Oct. 1 that Harvard’s admissions processes do not illegally discriminate against Asian American applicants, as anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions charged in its 2014 suit. Days later, SFFA appealed Burroughs’s decision, meaning the two parties will argue again before the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

Despite clearing Harvard of any wrongdoing, Burroughs recommended a number of improvements to the College’s admissions policies. She suggested Harvard provide admissions officers with implicit bias training, keep clear guidelines on the consideration of race in the admissions process, and monitor statistics for potential racial disparities.

Asked about Burroughs’s suggestions, Khurana singled out the value of implicit bias training. He noted that Harvard currently offers similar training for teaching fellows, faculty, and staff.

“We are far from a perfect institution,” he said. “I think figuring out how all of us become aware of the biases, stereotypes, and taken-for-granted assumptions that we have, and continually finding ways to be aware of that is something that has to happen at all levels of the institution.”

The lawsuit brought a national spotlight onto previously secret details of Harvard’s admissions process. Documents that became public included internal emails describing how administrators sometimes give special consideration to the relatives of major donors.

With the prospect of continued media attention, Khurana said the College must have transparent policies in order to maintain the public’s trust in its admissions process.

“We need to be transparent about what we do, so that it's easily communicated and understood, recognizing that a lot of what universities do is esoteric and nuanced and complex,” he said.

Khurana’s comments are only the latest in a years-long debate over Harvard’s admissions process. Critics, including SFFA, have derided the College’s admissions policies as unfair. They have argued that the use of subjective measures of merit — including the controversial “personal scores” that admissions officers assign to applicants — results in systematic discrimination against Asian American applicants.

Harvard has continually defended its “holistic” admissions process and argues that it must consider both subjective and objective factors to achieve sufficient diversity in its student body.

This debate came to a head with a three-week long trial in October 2018 that brought in students, Harvard administrators, and expert witnesses to the U.S. District Courthouse in South Boston.

Burroughs’s decision came roughly a year after the beginning of that trial and ruled in Harvard’s favor on all four counts. Though current students and administrators praised the ruling as a victory for Harvard, others, including SFFA lawyer Adam K. Mortara, denounced Burroughs’s ruling as incorrect.

The ruling will feature prominently in the pending appeals process, which experts say is likely to drag on for several years.

Days after SFFA appealed the case, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said he is confident that Harvard will prevail in the First Circuit. Bacow said he is less certain about how Harvard will fare if the case reaches the conservative-majority Supreme Court, as some experts have speculated.

Unlike Bacow, Khurana was close-lipped about Harvard’s prospect upon appeal.

“I refer those questions to the President. I am not a trained attorney,” he said.

Despite differing reactions, legal experts say the Burroughs’s opinion could serve as a roadmap as parallel court cases — like the pending lawsuit against the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — scrutinize affirmative action at other universities.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

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

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