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Lawsuit Against Harvard University Puts Affirmative Action in Jeopardy

A federal trial regarding affirmative action in the college admissions process has sparked up debate across the country. The lawsuit accuses Harvard University of holding its Asian-American applicants to a higher academic standard than applicants of other races.

Affirmative action is the process of favoring racial groups who suffer from discrimination in order to promote opportunity. However, the plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, are accusing elite universities of racial bias. They argue that in order to be considered fairly in the admissions process, race has to be removed as a consideration.

Harvard University often receives over 40,000 applications for 2,000 spaces in its freshman class.  They rate their applicants on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being the highest score an applicant can achieve. They are evaluated on many factors, such as academic, personal, and extracurricular activities. The plaintiffs claim that white applicants are repeatedly rated higher than Asian-Americans, with 21.3 percent of white applicants achieving a score of 1 or 2 compared to 17.6 percent of Asian-Americans.

Harvard University’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, testified that African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are sent recruitment letters with SAT scores as low as 1100 out of a total possible composite of 1600. Asian-Americans need to score at least 250 points higher to receive a recruitment letter. Fitzsimmons, who has worked as the dean of admissions for 30 years, claims this is meant to encourage students who normally would not look at universities of Harvard’s caliber to apply.

Harvard’s attorney, William Lee, claims that race is never considered a negative component of a students application and denies any allegations of discrimination by Harvard.

The lawsuit also highlights the admissions practices at Harvard University for special applicants. Harvard University admitted more than 2,000 applicants who were athletes, children of faculty members, and children of wealthy alumni over a six year period.

Emails from Harvard University show how the admissions committee considered an applicant whose grandfather donated $8.7 million to the university.

‘Going forward, I don’t see a significant opportunity for future major gifts,” an official in the Harvard development office wrote in an email. The official wrote that the donor, “had an art collection which conceivably could come our way, more probably it will go to the museum.” The admissions office was advised to give the applicant the second highest rating.

In further emails from Harvard officials, a men’s tennis coach thanked the admissions office for “rolling out the red carpet” for an applicant whose family donated $1.1 million over four years and donated two professorships. Fitzsimmons informed the tennis coach that the student would likely be admitted in October.

Wealthy applicants are often placed on the Dean’s and Director’s interest list, which the plaintiffs claim give them preferential treatment in the admissions process. Wealthy applicants who are not academically competitive can be eligible for the “Z List”, which grants them admission if they take a required gap year.

Representatives from Harvard University deny preferential treatment for wealthy applicants in the admissions process.

“There are some [children of] donors that get in and some that won’t,” an attorney representing Harvard said to interviewers, “If you get focused on things, no one claims that the admission of donors or donors’ children or donors’ relatives on the dean’s list has any effect on Asian-Americans. No economist claims this.”

William Fitzsimmons stands by his statement that all applicants to Harvard University go through the same admissions process.

The plaintiff’s witness, Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation, testified that Harvard admits “23 times as many rich kids as poor kids.”

In a previous court case regarding affirmative action at the University of Michigan, the court required the university to change their admission practices. As a result, African-American enrollment at the university dropped by ten percent.

David Card, an expert hired by Harvard, testified that African-American enrollment at Harvard would decline from 14 percent to 6 percent and Hispanic enrollment will decline from 12 to 9 percent if race was eliminated as an admissions factor.

Boston College has noticeably increased efforts to enroll a larger amount of AHANA+ students in the past few years. Enrollment of AHANA+ students increased from 26% for the Class of 2019 to 33% for the Class of 2022.

When asked how this court case might affect the admissions process and enrollment of minorities at Boston College, a representative for the admissions office stated that they, “can’t comment at this time as it’s premature given the complexities of this ongoing case and the fact that details are still emerging.”

If the Harvard case makes it to the Supreme Court, which it is poised to do, then it is highly likely that the enrollment of underrepresented minorities will decline if the plaintiffs are victorious in their suit.

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