On Thursday, the Justice Department announced its support of a lawsuit that alleges Harvard University's admissions policies discriminate against Asian-American applicants.
Harvard has asked the court to dismiss the case before trial. In a comprehensive Statement of Interest in the case, the Justice Department persuasively argues that the court should allow the lawsuit to proceed.
The plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., contend that the deck is stacked against Asian Americans in a number of ways. Since Harvard consciously discriminates in favor of black and Hispanic applicants, students who happen to be Asian need to score higher on admissions tests and earn better grades than they would otherwise. If Harvard didn't consider race at all, Asian-Americans would constitute a much larger proportion of the student body.
Evidence has also emerged that admissions officials tend to underrate Asian-American applicants on purely subjective criteria. The Justice Department makes note of this issue explicitly.
"Direct and circumstantial evidence indicates that a driving factor in Harvard's admissions process, the vague and elusory 'personal rating,' may be infected with racial bias against Asian Americans," wrote Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore. "A fact finder could reasonably conclude that the personal rating at worst reflects racial stereotypes against Asian Americans and at best encompasses an intentional and unexplained use of race."
This practice calls to mind "the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that [Harvard] used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s," said Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., in a statement.
Even if Harvard wasn't deliberately singling out Asian-Americans and rejecting them wholesale due to perceived personality deficiencies, it's just impossible to reach any conclusion other than the obvious one: Race-conscious admissions policies create systemic barriers to admission for certain students due to their ethnicity.
The Center for Equal Opportunity released a study this week that found Asian-Americans would constitute 43 percent of Harvard's freshmen class if admissions were based solely on merit. But, "when nonacademic factors were included, the number of Asian admits would drop to 31% if varsity athlete and legacy status were taken into account; to 26%, if extracurriculars and the 'personal rating' were also added; and, finally, to 18% if race was used as a factor."
An academic institution that expects the world to take it seriously would do well to rid itself of all non-academic criteria. But the law is only concerned with the racial aspect of admissions. The Supreme Court has permitted schools to use affirmative action, but only if they have no other means of fostering a diverse student body. In this matter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is correct: If Harvard intends to continue systematically disadvantaging Asian-American students, it should be forced to justify this practice in court.
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