Harvard’s Affirmative Action Battle

Blisse Kong ‘20

On October 1st, federal judge Allison D. Burroughs of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled that Harvard University does not intentionally discriminate against Asian-American applicants, clearing four claims of wrongdoing by the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). The lawsuit filed by the recognized anti-affirmative action organization claimed that Harvard was violating the Civil Rights Act by giving Asian-Americans lower “personal scores” during the admissions process. Personal scores, according to Harvard, are given based on essays, letters of recommendation, interview feedback, and responses to supplemental questions. According to the SFFA, the Civil Rights Act has been violated through the discrimination of Asian Americans. SFFA has also questioned the affirmative action policies of two other institutions: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (trial expected next year) and the University of Texas at Austin (upheld affirmative action in 2016).

Burroughs described in her 130-page ruling that diversity would “foster…tolerance, acceptance, and understanding.” She added that admissions guidelines concerning race were discussed during litigation, noting that Asian-Americans comprised over 20% of the admitted freshman class, despite being 6% of the national population. Overall, Burroughs acknowledged that while admissions policies could always be improved, there was no evidence that Harvard had discriminated against Asian Americans.

Drawing on precedent, Burroughs cited the 2016 Fisher II case that ruled the University of Texas at Austin’s race-aware admissions policy as constitutional. Furthermore, she believed that the government’s long-term interest in diversity in higher education was apparent through the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In this ruling, Justice Lewis F. Powell argued that diversity in a student body would produce educational benefits, giving states a legitimate reason to factor race into admissions decisions.

Included in the ruling were two statistical models, one from the defendant (Harvard) and another from the plaintiff (SFFA). University of California, Berkeley professor David E. Card, who created the econometric model (which demonstrates how statistics are contingent on various hypotheticals and initial conditions) for Harvard, concluded that there was no statistical basis for Asian-American discrimination. Although his model concludes in a negative coefficient for Asian Americans (indicating smaller chances of admission), the relationship is statistically insignificant and does not hold in all class years. SFFA’s witness, Duke University professor Peter S. Arcidiacono, argued the opposite, finding a statistically significant negative coefficient concerning non-ALDC applicants (recruited athletes – A, legacies -L, dean’s list – D, faculty/staff children – C). Burroughs, after examining both models, highlighted that Arcidiacono’s work left out Harvard’s “personal rating,” ALDC applicants, and intended career, among other factors. He also combined 5 years of applicant data in his model; thus, these generalizations lacked specificity in convincing the case for Harvard’s race discrimination. Conversely, Card created separate yearly models to let variability affect each admissions cycle.

In response to the lawsuit, many agreed that what happens next will greatly impact future admissions policies. Tiffany Jones, a director at the Education Trust, noted that “This decision helps to reinforce…the efforts of higher education leaders to create opportunities and support the success of underrepresented students of color.”

In response to the ruling, Students for Fair Admissions filed an appeal on October 4th. In a released email statement, Edward J. Blum, the president of SFFA, eagerly anticipates taking the case, “if necessary, to the US Supreme Court.”


[1] https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2019/10/5/sffa-appeals-admissions-decision/ 

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/02/us/harvard-admissions-lawsuit.html

[3] https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2019/10/3/admissions-decision-explained/

[4] https://www.npr.org/2019/10/01/730386096/federal-judge-rules-in-favor-of-harvard-in-admissions-case