Does Harvard discriminate against Asian-Americans? That was the central question at the heart of the closely-watched federal court case that ended Friday in Boston.
A group called Students for Fair Admissions accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants by rating them lower on personal qualities.
Harvard has vigorously defended itself, relying, in part, on the stories of Asian-American students and alumni. Meanwhile, the group representing unnamed Asian Americans who say they were unfairly denied admission is leaning heavily on statistics.
In the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs, Harvard’s lawyers used application of senior Thang Diep, a Vietnamese immigrant, as one example of an Asian-American student who was accepted. After testifying, the 21-year-old told WGBH News he thinks he benefited from Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy.
“My experiences are inherently tied to my race and ethnicity, and so I think being able to write and express these experiences on my personal statement really allowed me to present a fuller picture of myself,” Diep said.
At a time college coaches encourage some Asian-Americans to downplay their race in their applications, Diep said there was no way to ignore his ethnicity.
“I think that’s offensive to look at me without understanding my name and my immigrant and Vietnamese background,” Diep said.
Students for Fair Admissions has called Diep's case an exception and pointed to the group's data that suggest the college systematically discriminates by stereotyping Asian-Americans as one-dimensional, shy, quiet, book-smart and "perpetual foreigners."
Harvard’s lead lawyer, Bill Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, has pointed out none of the Asian-Americans who claim they were unfairly denied admission took the stand.
“There’s no student file that’s before the court,” Lee said, standing outside the Moakley Courthouse in the Seaport District. “If there were a file that showed discrimination, you would’ve seen it.”
The plaintiffs’ lead lawyer Adam Mortara, who is white, said that won’t make a difference in the outcome.
"The judge ruled very early on in the case that we had standing as an organization of 22,000 people to bring this suit,” Mortara said. “This suit was about Harvard. It was about Harvard's treatment of Asian-Americans. It doesn't need to be about any one particular student.”
Asian-Americans who oppose Harvard's admissions practices held a rally in Copley Square the day before the trial opened. There, Harvard junior Kelley Babvaphong, the daughter of Laotian immigrants, accused the college of illegally using race as a deciding factor. “Race-based affirmative action as it stands today has failed millions of Asian-Americans,” Babvaphong said.
Without any of the plaintiffs coming forward to testify, Students for Fair Admissions built its case on data.
Led by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, the group asked Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono to review six years of Harvard’s admissions database. Arcidiacono concluded the college discriminates against Asian-American applicants in how it rates them on personal characteristics like courage, kindness and leadership.
“That just struck me as blatantly racist. It actually got me rather angry,” said economist Michael Keane, who teaches at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
In a telphone interview with WGBH News, Keane said he felt a moral obligation to write a brief with four other economists supporting Arcidiacono’s research. He said answering the question of alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans, however, doesn’t involve any prior knowledge of statistics.
“The key point is simply: do you believe it’s plausible that Asian-Americans have simply worse personal qualities than whites? That’s not a statistical question,” Keane said.
During the trial, Harvard’s top expert witness, University of California-Berkeley economist David Card, suggested one reason Asian-Americans score lower in personal ratings is because, on average, they get weaker teacher recommendations than white applicants.
The college has pointed out that while Asian-Americans make up about 6 percent of the country’s population, they make up 23 percent of all students offered admission.
Harvard also said Arcidiacono’s “bloodless statistics” do not accurately reflect the human dimensions of the admissions process.
“One thing that Harvard has always said is that it does a holistic read of an application and that excellence is multi-dimensional,” said Cecilia Rouse, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy.
Rouse and 17 other economists filed a brief challenging Arcidiacono’s methodology.
“I believe that this is a very important case because I think it goes very much to the heart of who we are as a society and what kind of latitude we give our institutions of higher education,” said Rouse, who believes the plaintiff’s analysis is flawed because it excludes a subset of applicants, including recruited athletes and the children of Harvard alumni, donors, faculty and staff.
Those students make up 5 percent of applicants, but 30 percent of all students offered admission.
“By excluding them, he might may have introduced a different kind of bias into his analysis, which is going to make it more likely he was going to find the results he did,” Rouse explained in a phone interview.
What Arcidiacono found is that Asian-Americans are at a disadvantage in Harvard’s admissions process, and that two-thirds of African Americans and one half of Hispanic applicants are admitted due to what he called “racial preferences.”
“Harvard is actually using the personality score as effectively a fudge factor to adjust the racial composition of the class,” said Keane, the economist from Australia.
On campus, Diep worries what would happen if Harvard and other selective schools could not consider race and ethnicity in admissions.
“I honestly wonder if people would even apply to college in the first place, especially students of color who have experienced racism because of their skin color,” he added.
Harvard says such a change would result in fewer black and Latino students being admitted.
Speaking at the pre-trial rally, Blum told his supporters that regardless of the outcome the campaign to end the consideration of race in college admissions will not end.
“I am confident that the next generation of leaders are in this very gathering today and I ask that you commit to this worthy goal for the benefit of all Americans,” Blum said.
Burroughs will review the evidence and could issue her opinion sometime next year.
Whoever loses is expected to appeal, and legal experts predict this case could ultimately reach the Supreme Court.