Trial Begins in Harvard Anti-Asian Discrimination Suit

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October 15, 2018

Plaintiffs who charge Harvard University with bias against Asians in its admissions practices will have their day in court Monday.

Following opening arguments, Harvard dean of admissions William Fitzsimmons is slated as first on the stand in Massachusetts district federal court, the Wall Street Journal reported. Fitzsimmons, who has overseen the exclusive university's admissions process since 1986, will face questioning about a "holistic" approach which he helped pioneer and which plaintiffs now contend unfairly discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

That group of plaintiffs is organized under the umbrella of Students for Fair Admissions (SFA), an organization led by conservative political activist Edward Blum. Blum has previously challenged affirmative action policies in court, overseeing Abigail Fisher's discrimination suit against the University of Texas that went twice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The basic thrust of SFA's case against Harvard is straightforward. They contend that numerous highly qualified Asian students apply to Harvard every year—Asians outcompete all other ethnic groups on measures of college preparedness like the SAT, and Harvard admissions officers reliably give them the highest extracurricular scores of any group.

But, the plaintiffs argue, Harvard routinely excludes otherwise qualified Asian candidates on the basis of intangible, subjective measures like "positive personality," likability, courage, kindness, and being "widely respected." A statistical analysis of 160,000 applicant profiles was presented by SFA as strong evidence that Harvard systematically held Asian-American students to a higher standard than their non-Asian peers.

Harvard, the Journal reported, denies the allegation, insisting that, in line with Supreme Court precedent governing federal anti-discrimination statutes, race is just one of many factors it takes into account in making admissions decisions. They contend that the disparities in personal factors come down to "unobservable factors," apparent in interviews, letters of recommendation, and essays.

The Department of Justice has expressed interest in the lawsuit, filing a statement in support of the SFA in which it contends that "Harvard has failed to show that it does not unlawfully discriminate against Asian Americans." The Department has opened its own separate investigation into discrimination by Harvard, as well as by Ivy-rival Yale University.

Arguments in the case are expected to take several weeks, the Journal reported, with expected testimony from current and former officers and other administrative officials. U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs—whom President Barack Obama appointed to the federal bench in 2014—will likely make the final ruling in the case several months after arguments are concluded.

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