Mini-Doc on Harvard Case Marks Step Forward for Affirmative-Action Critics

Supreme Court will soon reconsider race-based college admissions policies

(Glen Cooper/Getty Images)
January 27, 2022

The civil rights group that will soon fight race-based college admissions policies before the Supreme Court is also working to share stories of Asian students who fear prejudice from Ivy League schools.

Students for Fair Admissions on Monday released a video in which professors and students discuss the problems with the affirmative action regime in American colleges and universities. One of the students in the video, Harrison Chen, said he views affirmative action debates as "dishonest" and expressed frustration that alleged bias against Asian students doesn't register with the general public or factor in debates about race preferences.

"Part of the reason I wanted to do this interview was because everyone's looking for the same story. And they don't really care what you have to say. It's always this 'Asian kid, high test scores, mad that he didn't get in,'" Chen said.

Students for Fair Admissions is accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian applicants to admit the school's preferred number of black and Hispanic students. The group is also pressing the High Court to end consideration of race in college admissions. The Court announced this week that it would take up the group's case along with another challenge to affirmative action policies.

The group is mostly shielding its roster from public view to protect its student members and their families from harassment, though Harvard made efforts to uncover its membership in the pre-trial evidence-gathering phase of the case.

Chen and another student, Calvin Yang, nonetheless participated in Monday's promotional. Chen is applying for admission to Harvard, while Yang was rejected for the university's 2025 class.

As the video describes, the lawsuit generally alleges that Harvard smuggles a bias against Asians into its personality appraisals of Asian applicants. Harvard applicants are scored numerically on four different domains—academics, athletics, extracurriculars, and a "personal" rating.

Prior to the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit, personal scoring was highly subjective. Admissions office file-reading procedures offered sparse written guidance on personal scoring before the case, and it was not until 2018 that those procedures were amended to bar the use of race in personal scoring at all.

"I think this personality factor that plays a pretty big role in the entire holistic review process is an invented barrier, actually, an obstacle to target specifically Asian-American students," Yang said of personal scoring.

Harvard itself does not deny that Asians receive lower personal scores as compared with all other racial groups, likely because the school's own admissions data show as much. The university argues the disparity is attributable to other factors, such as institutional support from the applicant's high school.

Harvard began crafting its holistic review practices in the 1920s as part of an effort to reduce its share of Jewish students, which then approached 30 percent. University officials, including then-president A. Lawrence Lowell, believed Jewish students lacked good character.

Administrators concluded their goal was best accomplished by adding subjective factors to the admissions process, and the chief instrument they wielded against Jewish applicants was a character appraisal, much like the contemporary personal score. Officials believed the system would help turn Jewish students away on a pretextual basis, without resorting to a blunt instrument like a quota.

The policy worked exactly as hoped. The share of Jewish students at Harvard plummeted to 15 percent, a number that held steady for decades.

The case is No. 20-1199 Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard.