First Look at Controversial Harvard Admissions Case

By Emerson L. & McKenna B. 
November 1, 2018

Students for Fair Admissions (SSFA), a organization contesting how the college admissions system uses race, filed a lawsuit against Harvard University on November 17, 2014. They alleged a bias against Asian-American applicants, citing both the low percentages of Asian-American students at Harvard and the institution’s rejection of academically impressive Asian-American students.

“[The Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard] case doesn’t just affect Harvard; it will set a precedent that affects all private institution admissions,” said Bonnie Singh, the Administrative Assistant to College Counseling at Westridge.

In Regents v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional to use race as a deciding factor in college admissions as long as quotas were not used. In following years, the Court has upheld this decision, but the distinction between race-based admission and racial quotas can be somewhat nebulous.

The New York Times reported an internal study Harvard conducted in 2013, and did not publically release, in which it found that Asian students are held to higher standardized testing standards by private colleges than any other race students.  A National Study of College Experience led by Espenshade and Radford (2009) showed that a student who self-identifies as Asian will need 140 SAT points higher than whites, 320 SAT points higher than Hispanics, and 450 SAT points higher than African Americans.

“At selective colleges, Asians are demographically overrepresented minorities, but they are underrepresented relative to the applicant pool,” wrote Jeannie Suk Gersen of the The New Yorker. A 2005 study completed by senior faculty at Princeton noted that with race-blind admissions, the percentage of Asian-Americans at elite colleges would rise from 17.6 percent to 23.4 percent.

The SFFA's claim is that Harvard has unfairly capped its number of Asian-American students, therefore violating the Civil Rights Act. The head of the SSFA is Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist who, in the past, has campaigned against racialized college admissions and represented individuals in cases like the Fisher v. University of Texas case. He continues to work towards the elimination of race-based admissions in American colleges and decided in 2013 [after the conclusion of the Fisher trial] that “the next step… would be to challenge outright the court in the use of race in the admissions process.”

In response to the filing, Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow published a statement which pointed out that, in the past, the Supreme Court had ruled in the favor of their admissions process twice. “The college’s admissions process does not discriminate against anybody,” he asserted.

On Harvard’s campus, many Asian-American students rally in the Square to support the race-conscious admissions policy. Vietnamese-born Harvard student Thang Q. Diep spoke at the rally, stating unambiguously, My stance on affirmative action is a general reminder to the rest of America–and especially to Edward Blum–that I, along with so many other Asian Americans, refuse to be tools of white supremacy, and that we stand in alliance with all communities of color.” Diep is not alone in the belief that Blum is using Asian-Americans to appeal to a wider demographic, bolstering his personal agenda of eliminating affirmative action altogether instead of purely campaigning for racial equality.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) filed an amicus brief against the SFFA in concert with 34 other Asian-American advocacy groups. The AALDEF argued the SFFA’s movement “treat[s] Asian-Americans as a monolithic group” and “improperly conflates negative action [against Asian-Americans] with a race-conscious admissions policy that recognizes the importance of diversity.” In response, the SFFA argued that campus diversity should be pursued by metrics other than race, such as socioeconomic status.

The anonymous plaintiffs of the case, Diep’s testimony, and the voices of Asian-Americans within the Westridge community indicate that Asian-Americans are divided on this case. Westridge’s large and diverse population of Asian-Americans hold varied viewpoints in regards to the case and the Asian-American experience in the college applications process. The opinions range from a general dissatisfaction with selective colleges’ admissions to a fear for the future of affirmative action in light of this suit.  While the case does not directly target affirmative action initiatives, it could create a dangerous precedent for them.



Anti-Asian Bias, Not Affirmative Action is on Trial in the Harvard Case

For Asian-Americans, a Changing Landscape on College Admissions

5 Harvard Friends, and a Frank Talk About How They Got In

What’s Next for Harvard’s Affirmative-Action Case? It’s Complicated