A LOOK BEHIND THE HYPE
In “A Fight for Diversity at Harvard”, we shared information about Edward Blum’s lawsuit, SFFA v. Harvard, which seeks to ban inclusive, whole-person admissions practices nationwide and asks for a ruling that “any use of race or ethnicity in the educational setting” is unlawful.
On June 15th, both sides filed summary judgment motions arguing that that they should win the case without a trial. We’re sure you saw the ensuing flood of press coverage, some of it misleading and serving Blum’s aim of fracturing communities of color.
Since June 15th, the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard’s steering committee has spent hundreds of hours reviewing and discussing the lawsuit documents. While more evidence will emerge, based on what we have seen so far, Harvard does not intentionally discriminate against Asian Americans or employ racial quotas, nor has SFFA established that Harvard’s consideration of race, as one among many factors, causes bias against Asian Americans.
Battle of the Experts
Both SFFA and Harvard retained expert economists, who analyzed six years of Harvard admissions data (classes of 2014 to 2019). SFFA’s expert, Prof. Peter Arcidiacono, found that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans and uses racial quotas. Harvard’s expert, Prof. David Card found no evidence of discrimination or “racial balancing”:
"The effect [of Asian American ethnicity] is slightly positive in three of the six years and slightly negative in three, with an overall effect (-0.05 percentage points) that – as with the effect for each individual admission class – is statistically indistinguishable from zero."
How did the experts reach such different results?
The SFFA expert cherry-picked the data by pooling the candidates from all 6 years (when we know applicants are only compared to those in the same year), and removing athletes, legacies, children of Harvard faculty and staff, and applicants of interest to the Admissions dean and director from much of his analysis. The SFFA expert also omitted variables such as the Personal Rating – more on that below.
What is the Role of Race in the Harvard Admissions Process?
Prof. Card found that applicants must be strong on multiple dimensions to be admitted to Harvard, and that many applicant characteristics explain more about admissions decisions than race. As the graph below shows, profile ratings (including academic, extracurricular. and personal ratings), teacher and counselor ratings, socioeconomic context, the alumni interview, and intended career and concentration all explain more about admissions decisions than race.
What is SFFA seeking in this lawsuit?
SFFA wants to ban inclusive, whole-person admissions practices nationwide by getting a Court ruling that “any use of race or ethnicity in the educational setting” violates the Constitution and federal law.
As to Harvard, SFFA asks the court to prohibit Harvard from using race as a factor in admissions. Alarmingly, SFFA seeks a “permanent injunction requiring Harvard to conduct all admissions in a manner that does not permit those engaged in the decisional process to be aware of or learn the race or ethnicity of any applicant for admission.” SFFA Complaint, p. 119.
This injunction would prevent Harvard from:
Learning applicants’ names
Recruiting applicants in person
Viewing athletic, drama, music, or other performance, either on video or live.
And it would prevent students from:
Submitting essays and recommendations that discuss how race or ethnicity has impacted their educations or lives
Listing awards and activities indicating race or ethnicity, such as President of the Black Students Association or Choreographer for the Indian Classical Dance Company
Writing about their immigrant stories, whether they have come from Russia or China.
The order SFFA seeks would gut the Harvard admissions process and require applicants to strip key parts of their identities and experience. Furthermore, Prof. Card found that without considering race, even using the “race-neutral” alternatives proposed by SFFA, Harvard is unlikely to be able to achieve a student body comparable in diversity to its current composition without decreasing the overall quality of the admitted class on a variety of dimensions, including academic ratings.
What else does the data show about Asian Americans?
SFFA’s expert found that Asian Americans generally are admitted in higher rates than whites in the set of applicants he threw out of his analysis: athletes, legacies, and others with Harvard connections. Similarly, Prof. Card found that Asian American legacies, who are growing in number, are several percentage points more likely to be admitted than white legacies with similar characteristics. His analysis also showed that Asian American applicants are more likely than white applicants to identify medicine or health as their intended career, a category with a lower admission rate than other intended careers.
Prof. Card found Asian Americans from California, who comprise 30% of all Asian American applicants, have a slightly higher probability of admission than white candidates with the same characteristics. He notes, “If Harvard’s admissions process sought to limit the number of Asian-American applicants, it would be unlikely to favor Asian-American applicants relative to White applicants in the region in which Asian-American applicants are most concentrated.”
SFFA’s expert's model shows that Asian Americans have an unexplained advantage in Academic and Extracurricular ratings (both of which include subjective components) and an unexplained disadvantage in Personal Ratings. The Personal Rating is not a “personality rating” but instead reflects applicant essays, teacher and counselor recommendations, alumni and staff interviews, anticipated career, parental occupation, and other factors. In formulating Personal Ratings, admissions officers consider what all these inputs say about an applicant’s character, potential contribution to college life, openness to new ideas and new people, and the kind of roommate a person will be.
SFFA dismisses the unexplained advantages that Asian American applicants have in Academic and Extracurricular Ratings as resulting from “unobserved differences”, even though these ratings include subjective factors, but claims that the disadvantage in Personal Ratings must be due to racial bias by Harvard admissions officers. SFFA’s claim of racial bias in Personal Ratings is undermined by the fact that its expert analysis did not include applicant essays – a significant part of the Personal Rating. (Essays were not produced in the litigation to protect applicant privacy).
Prof. Card reports that the Personal Ratings align with recommendations and interview reports (alumni interviewers also give Asian American applicants slightly lower ratings than white applicants). Notably, ratings rely on inputs from high school/other sources, so if implicit bias is a factor, it is not located in Harvard Admissions alone. Certainly, we believe that Harvard must work against intentional and implicit bias and structural inequality affecting any racial group, both within the institution and from other sources impacting the admission process.
What about the OIR Documents?
In 2013, some employees of Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research (OIR) began to try to model the admissions process without the full admissions database and without a full understanding of the admissions process. Based on this limited model, the OIR analysis predicted that the percentage of admitted students who are Asian American would be higher if Harvard considered only an applicant’s academic achievement. Of course, Harvard values more than high grades and test scores. Moreover, the OIR documents themselves acknowledge that the analysis was preliminary and had limitations, and Prof. Card explains in detail that OIR analysis was limited in ways similar to that of Peter Arcidiacono, SFFA’s expert. For example, it did not include measures of socioeconomic status, the role of the personal essay, or cases of exceptional talent. As noted by Kimberly West-Faulcon, a former civil rights attorney who has litigated cases of race discrimination in higher education, the expert reports submitted on June 15th – which considered many more key factors – are much more thorough and relevant than the preliminary, internal OIR report.
As more evidence becomes available, we will keep you posted. Also, many organizations and educational institutions are preparing amicus briefs to submit in the case, and the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard is now exploring the possibility of joining one.
Thanks to those of you who have written op-eds and spoken out on social media and in the press. Please let us know if you would like to add your voice.
Jane, Margaret, Jeannie, Kristin, and Michael
Jane Sujen Bock '81, Margaret M. Chin '84, Jeannie Park '83, Kristin R. Penner '89, & Michael Williams '81
Steering Committee of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard
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Court filings detail role of race in Harvard undergraduate admissions | Wall Street Journal
Does Harvard discriminate against Asians in admissions? | Susan Dynarski, professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan and Diverse Harvard member
Of course Harvard doesn’t want a student body of only bookworms | Washington Post
Asian Americans and affirmative action: we will not be your wedge | Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Media miss the mark on Southeast Asian American students and impact of affirmative action | Southeast Asia Research Action Center (SEARAC)
NCAPA Reaffirms Support for Diversity in Higher Education Admissions | National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA)
The Last of the Tiger Parents | New York Times
The true mission of the lawsuit against Harvard | Boston Globe
Merit and the Admissions Debates at Harvard University and Stuyvesant High School | The Society Pages (co-author Margaret M. Chin, professor of sociology at Hunter College and Diverse Harvard steering committee member)
From Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA: