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Harvard College’s Admissions Office is “moving ahead” with the suggestions that Judge Allison D. Burroughs included in her ruling on Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67.
In 2014, SFFA sued the University, alleging that the College unlawfully discriminates against Asian American applicants in its admissions process. Burroughs presided over a three-week trial starting in Oct. 2018, and ruled in favor of Harvard on all five counts in Oct. 2019.
After lauding the importance of diversity in higher education and finding that the College is not guilty of any unlawful discrimination, Burroughs offered a number of suggestions to the Admissions Office.
“Notwithstanding the fact that Harvard’s admissions program survives strict scrutiny, it is not perfect,” she wrote in the ruling. “The process would likely benefit from conducting implicit bias trainings for admissions officers, maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race in the admissions process, which were developed during this litigation, and monitoring and making admissions officers aware of any significant race-related statistical disparities in the rating process.”
“We thought they were very good suggestions,” Fitzsimmons said in a Wednesday interview, noting that his office has already completed some implicit bias trainings.
Fitzsimmons also said he hopes to invite Psychology professor Mahzarin R. Banaji — one of several scholars who first coined the term “implicit bias” — to speak with admissions staff.
“Lots of people on our committee are very familiar with her work, and with the concept of implicit bias,” he said. “But I think it's good to make it — in a funny way — even more explicit, as it were, by making sure that everybody is as familiar with implicit bias as I have been.”
The Admissions Office has also taken steps to create clearer guidelines on their use of race, according to Fitzsimmons. The “reading procedures” for applicants to the Class of 2023 explicitly prohibited admissions officers from considering an applicant’s race when assigning scores for personal traits.
Fitzsimmons said he will again re-evaluate the guidelines before he begins the training program for new staff over the summer. He added that much of the training process is discussion-based and falls outside the purview of written instructions and training materials.
Fitzsimmons also said he thinks the Admissions Office will likely more explicitly lay out training procedures in writing.
“There is an enormous amount of training, about how all these factors — how does first gen come in? How does, for example, being a local Cambridge or Boston student come in? All of that is part of the training, but not all of it is written down explicitly, but I think now we will write it down more explicitly,” he said.
Burroughs also suggested that the Admissions Office both track and make admissions officers “aware of any significant race-related statistical disparities in the rating process.”
Fitzsimmons said he is working with several of Harvard’s lawyers — including head trial counsel and senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation William F. Lee ’72 and Office of the General Counsel attorney Ara B. Gershengorn ’93 — to put this recommendation into practice.
A few days after Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard, SFFA appealed the decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. Attorneys for both sides are currently awaiting the release of a briefing schedule to set the timeline for the next phase of the trial.
At the conclusion of her decision, Burroughs wrote that “the Court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better.”
Fitzsimmons said he took note of that comment, too.
“She called it ‘a very fine admissions process,’ but it's like anything else,” he said. “You can always be better. You can always be more explicit, in a funny way. So that's what we're working on.”
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
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