Harvard University is currently embroiled in a complex lawsuit that could well change the way top institution in the world conduct admissions. The issue has put the entire debate of affirmative action and discrimination against Asian-Americans at the centre of the US academia and made people question the quest for “diverse student bodies”.

Last week, trial began in Boston of a lawsuit that challenges Harvard’s admission policy as discriminating towards Asian-Americans and more favourably leaning towards Whites, Hispanics and African-Americans. The admission process at Harvard University has long been a manifestation of affirmative action, where the decision to admit a student can be shaped by much more than his or her academic prowess and all-round extra- and co-curricular strength. An applicant’s race, geography and background have all played into account for admissions to Harvard, but only as far as if they are not Asian-Americans.

The initial proceedings into the Harvard University lawsuit have thrown the charade of high merit, and the ability needed to get into Harvard or other top institutions, out of the window; with many critics questioning how much more was it worth building classes of students with more diversity, rather than more talent.

Affirmative Action

Harvard’s policy of admitting students purely on the basis of academic performance was altered about a century ago, in the 1920s. And the reason was a fear that the university would be flooded by Jewish students who performed strongly academically. Limiting Jewish students to a quota was proposed at first, but many university officials considered it too obvious a discrimination towards the Jews. In response, a more holistic, “equal opportunity policy” was introduced that gave weightage to non-academic factors such as geographical diversity. The aim was to recruit more students from Midwestern and Southern states to counter Jewish applicants.

To this date, Harvard continues to make special efforts to invite students from 20 US states it calls Sparse Country (regions where Jews were once sparse), the initial findings in the Harvard University Lawsuit revealed. The policy that began to counter Jews has evolved into a holistic admission, affirmative action criteria that gauges, besides academic ability, factors such as personal qualities and racial background.

The Harvard dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, said during his testimony in the Harvard University lawsuit that Harvard sends letters to students in Sparse Country to encourage them to apply if they have PSAT scores of at least 1310.

Asian (dis)Advantage

So what’s the problem? Well it is merely the fact that in order to get such an encouragement letter, an Asian-American student must have a PSAT score of at least 1380. When questioned by an attorney about why a white boy in Las Vegas with 1310 could get the letter and an Asian-American with 1370 could not, Fitzsimmons presented unspecific reasons about the needs for diversity.

But the revelations have made certain things quite clear. Race is not one of the criteria that Harvard admissions are based on, but rather the only one there is. The case of letters of encouragement sent to students explains how. Setting a 1310 benchmark for White students against 1380 for Asian-creed students explains how race plays a determining role in the entire process. The score benchmark is set before any other factor of the potential applicant has been taken into account, and that explains the bias Harvard maintains against Asians.

Just like Harvard wanted the varsity to be more White than Jewish a century ago, it probably still wants itself more White than Asian a century later.

More Than Harvard

And the decimation begins outside of Harvard. Asians generally scored poorly than Whites for “personal” rating – qualities like likability, maturity, integrity, courage, kindness based on admissions officers’ review of alumni interviews, student essays, and high-school recommendations. The Harvard dean of admissions agreed during the hearing that admissions officers scored Asian applicants higher for academics, but low for personal rating. Fitzsimmons hinted that one of the reasons for Asians’ lower personal ratings could be that high-school teachers and guidance counsellors’ supported Whites more Asians in recommendations.

Consequently, Harvard’s holistic review process of admission application, which evaluates a minority applicant’s disadvantages in life that lead to lower credentials, actually does little to account for that disadvantage. An Asian applicant given a poorer recommendation by a high-school teacher than a White classmate, would be gauged on that very recommendation, belying the entire concept of holistic review and diverse intake.

Harvard will probably win the trial as it will be really hard to prove its wilful intention of discrimination against Asians. But the trial may ensue changes that end the general discriminatory attitude towards Asian students in America. And maybe, an Asian student with 1310 also gets a letter from Harvard next year encouraging him or her to apply, just like his White schoolmates last year.

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