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Affirming Affirmative Action: The Harvard Case and Its Implications for BC

In 2014, Harvard University came under fire for its infamously selective admissions process. After another year of high selectivity, questions were raised about who was admitted and who was left out. Students for Fair Admissions, a non-profit that challenges unfair admissions practices in the US, set their sights on Harvard, specifically for their perceived bias against Asian Americans. The group claimed that Harvard set a cap for Asian Americans in their incoming class and stopped accepting Asian applicants, even though they consistently outperformed other applicants. The subsequent court case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, ended in a Massachusetts District Court favoring the university. “At least for now, ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race-conscious admissions,” said District Judge Allison Burroughs in her decision.

This ruling left many wondering what would happen next for affirmative action. Where would the debate lead, and what other institutions would become targets for racial bias? Of course, Boston College had to talk about the case—and they did.

Deans Vincent Rougeau of Boston College Law School, Susan Gennaro of the Connell School of Nursing, and Stanton Wortham of the Lynch School of Education came together in a panel discussion on February 24 to discuss the Harvard case and its implications for BC. One of the central points came from the moderator, who asked about the issues that come from a case like Harvard’s. Dean Rougeau noted that, had the controversy been at a non-elite school, the country would not have taken notice. Only at the best schools do people care about what happens, he claimed.

In many ways, school name recognition does matter. Students denied from a school with high acceptance rates would not be as quick to blame their race as a factor. But those with 1600 SATs and a bevy of AP classes, those who apply to the best school in the country? That's another question. All three deans on the panel agreed that the question of admissions is not one of solely statistics and grades. “We have judges in admissions, not algorithms,” Dean Worthamstated confidently.

From the panel’s answers, BC’s own ideas surrounding admissions seems pretty clear. They fall in line with Harvard’s belief that a class is not chosen purely on merit, but also on other factors such as leadership, character, and yes, race.

The Harvard Case, however impactful it may seem, did not shine a light on other outstanding problems in question. Dean Rougeau argued that every college should balance their admissions, keeping in mind that not every student had the same privilege growing up. “We need to keep in mind the access to privilege, and who gets it,” Rougeau said. Privilege, in its many forms, affects college admissions—and not always in ways many people talk about. Critics are not as quick to beat up on legacy students, or families who made massive donations, or sports recruits. What categories in college admissions do we blindly accept?

It seems that society has normalized the idea that those with money and privilege get into schools and has accepted paying one's way in as a natural truth. “Having connections” today means more than just being born into a family that went to Ivy League institutions. Dean Rougeau asked: “Do we focus our problems at Blacks and Asians because they’re minorities and economically less affluent?” It seems that the nature of college admissions says we do. In all the points the Harvard case raised, it neglected to mention the countless other factors in admissions that carry viable biases when put into perspective.

But how does BC take on these issues? All three deans agreed that we “don’t live in a meritocracy” and that BC does not plan on changing that. No admissions officials are going to draw a red line under the top 2,000 applicants with the best scores and say “here is our class!” Instead, the panel said that BC will continue to try and make the most diverse class it can while being fair to applicants in the process. The question of legacy and donations will not go away, but it seems like neither will their influence.

Inaccuracies still exist in the process, on both ends of the spectrum: for those who are rich and for those who are poor. BC stresses that it sees the value in accepting both. Multiculturalism stood paramount to all three deans on the panel as integral to a college campus. “The question of diversity is not easy here, and it does not get any easier when you leave here,” Dean Rougeau said. Keeping a diverse campus is a part of emulating the greater world and preparing students for it. Also, diversity is key to changing mindsets and for breaking stereotypes. Dean Wortham added that “when you are exposed to people from other places, you’re forced to see where they come from.” By seeing where others come from, students gain a new vision of the world. BC seeks to enhance this vision in students and has thus used it as the reasoning behind their admissions process.

But even with BC promising a holistic approach, questions still remain about the legitimacy of affirmative action as a means of achieving diversity. At its heart, affirmative action works to empower those who have been historically disadvantaged in the past. But should race be the defining characteristic in that process? The court ruling in the Harvard case concluded that, while it was not at fault, “Harvard’s emphasis on racial diversity is too narrow and that the full benefits of diversity can be better achieved by placing more emphasis on economic diversity.” The College Board has also come out with new statistics and factors that attempt to account for disadvantaged students in SAT scores. Called the “Environmental Context Dashboard," the tool looks at school quality, AP availability, real estate value, and more environmental factors to provide data on a student’s non-academic disadvantages. BC says that it is willing to pilot these types of systems that consider “degrees of disadvantage,” but have yet to do so. It remains to be seen when this tool will come into play and whether it will alleviate the fears surrounding affirmative action.

In the context of the Harvard case, it seems that BC stands hand in hand with the college across the river; they both agree that admissions cannot be summed up in numbers and grades. However, this approach does not mean that BC or any other college has a perfect system. Questions about what colleges should consider when deciding who to accept will continue to come up, even with a court ruling in favor of affirmative action. But the overall message of the panel was clear: in order to make change happen, conversations like this one need to continue; not only at BC but across the nation.

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