College Admissions

Harvard Discriminates Against Asian-Americans, and 'Implicit' Bias Training Won't Fix That

Race-based admissions will likely make a return visit to the Supreme Court.


Last week, Judge Allison Burroughs of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts sided with Harvard University and upheld its race-conscious admissions program.

This was not really a surprise, as existing Supreme Court precedent does permit universities to consider an applicant's race as one criteria for admissions, if narrowly-tailored to create a diverse student body. Burroughs ruled that Harvard's policy falls within those guidelines.

Critics point out that Harvard's approach has allowed admissions officers to engage in blatant discrimination on the basis of skin color. The plaintiff in the Harvard case, Students for Fair Admissions Inc., contended that Asian-American applicants are specifically disfavored under a race-conscious admissions policy, and that this violates federal civil rights law. They presented considerable evidence that admissions officers gave them low ratings on subjective grounds like personality. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs argued, Harvard did everything possible to artificially engineer a campus that was well-represented by students from "sparse country"—the South and the Great Plains—and thus significantly more white than it would have been otherwise.

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., plans to appeal the case. It could eventually end up before the Supreme Court, where the new, clear-cut conservative majority may be inclined to revise the previous decisions that limited, but left intact, certain race-based admissions schemes.

One little-discussed aspect of Burrough's decision drew the attention of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Allison D. Burroughs, a U.S. district judge in Boston, noted in the conclusion of her 130-page ruling that while the university's policy "survives strict scrutiny, it is not perfect." Among her recommendations for improvement? Training to avoid implicit bias for Harvard's admissions officers.

Training to stop bias that is implicit and not overt, commonly known as "implicit-bias training," is a contemporary outgrowth of sensitivity and diversity training. It has been used by both companies and colleges, including on faculty-hiring committees. But its reach into admissions has been limited, and some question how it would be carried out there.

Implicit bias, though, is a very fraught psychological concept. A once beloved tool for measuring the supposedly subconscious biases people have against marginalized groups—the implicit association testdoesn't actually work. There's scant evidence that the workshops and training modules designed to combat implicit bias actually do much good.

But the bigger issue in this specific case is that such training seems unequal to the task of addressing the biases of Harvard's admissions program. These biases are not implicit: They are explicit. Harvard is specifically favoring certain racial groups over others in an effort to make the campus less Asian. This is not a subconscious, invisible, unapparent bias. It's deliberate discrimination, and obvious to all. It's long overdue for a retrial.