Affirmative Action on Trial in Harvard Admissions Case

In this Aug. 30, 2012, file photo, a tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

BOSTON (CN) – An affirmative action case against Harvard University finally went to trial Monday, four years after a lawsuit was filed claiming the nation’s oldest college discriminates against prospective Asian-American students by considering race in the admissions process.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs, who is presiding over the bench trial between the Ivy League school and Students for Fair Admissions, said she expects the proceedings to last as long as three weeks.

Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, brought the underlying suit in 2014, alleging Harvard puts Asian-American students at a disadvantage by allowing race to be one of several different factors in admission acceptance.

Attorney Adam Mortara, in his opening statements on behalf of SFFA, argued that Harvard conducts admissions with what he called “a subjective assessment, with essentially no guidance about the applicant’s likability.”

Mortara argued that exclusively using academic performance for admissions would greatly benefit Asian-American applicants, who he characterized as consistently outperforming their white fellow applicants even though only half as many students of Asian descent get into Harvard.

The attorney also said the school’s personal rating system – which weighs numerous factors such as race and socioeconomic status along with high school performance – is to blame for Asian-Americans not being accepted as much as their white counterparts.

In Harvard’s opening statement, attorney Bill Lee argued that the school must consider factors other than academic achievement for admissions because of the thousands of applicants with perfect SAT verbal scores, SAT math scores or GPAs.

“Harvard cannot achieve its educational goals without considering race. Either its classes would be radically less diverse, or they would suffer in other fundamental ways, including in academic excellence,” Lee said.

Lee also criticized SFFA’s assessment of the school’s admissions data.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will say anything,” he said.

Harvard’s data based on six years of admissions, which Lee briefly summarized during opening statements, showed that there was only a modest impact on student acceptance when considering their race.

“This allegation that Harvard discriminates against Asian-Americans has been made before, has been investigated before, and has been found to be meritless before,” Lee said.

Judge Burroughs’ final ruling will likely depend on her assessment of admissions data presented by each side.

Both sides filed motions for summary judgment in the months preceding the trial, based on their own sets of data purporting to show that the admissions process is or is not unfairly biased.

Burroughs denied the motions, finding that the parties were relying on conflicting data.

The Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the case in August, urging Judge Burroughs to side with the Asian-American students.

“The record evidence demonstrates that Harvard’s race-based admissions process significantly disadvantages Asian-American applicants compared to applicants of other racial groups— including both white applicants and applicants from other racial minority groups,” the filing states.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in support of Harvard, said at the time that the Trump administration was trying “to dismantle progress in racial equity” after reversing Obama-era guidance on affirmative action.

Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said in a statement Monday that SFFA “has propagated the model minority myth” and used Asian-Americans for political gain.

“Affirmative action and a university’s right to set its own institutional goals are on trial today,” Parker said. “We hope the court recognizes this spurious lawsuit for what it is: a vehicle for an anti-affirmative action agenda, not a righteous fight for equality.”

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which also filed a brief supporting Harvard, argued that the university’s admissions policies actually benefit Asian-American applicants. Predicting that removing Harvard’s policy would primarily benefit white students, the fund said that comparing admissions among all Asians as a monolithic group fails to consider diversity among Asians.

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