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Dueling Demonstrations In Boston Set The Stage For Court Battle Over Harvard's Admissions Practices

Asian-Americans gathered in Boston’s Copley Square on Oct. 14 to show their support for a lawsuit against Harvard University that alleges the school's admissions process discriminates against Asians.
Meredith Nierman/ WGBH News

A day before the start of the trial that could eliminate the use of race as a factor in the Harvard admissions process, two protests took place across Boston — one in support of the university and another in support of Students for Fair Admissions, the group claiming that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

In Harvard Square, around 100 students and other supporters donned shirts and held signs reading #DefendDiversity as they rallied in defense of Harvard's admissions process.

Alex-Maree Roberts, a junior at Harvard, said she's hopeful about how the trial will go.

"I truly believe that part of Harvard's success and prestige and a lot of the good things about it come from it being a diverse institution," she said. "I'm really hoping that the court system will see that fair admissions will be supported."

While Students for Fair Admissions is only suing Harvard, saying the school holds Asian-American applicants to higher standards and ranks them lower on intangibles like leadership skills, the case could have far reaching implications for selective colleges and universities that also consider race in admissions. Harvard denies that it discriminates, arguing that Asian-Americans make up 23 percent of the student body.

Speaking in front of the crowd, Thang Diep, the president of the Harvard Vietnamese Association and one of the students testifying in the case, said he is personally driven to make sure people like him have a platform to share their experiences.

"Supporting affirmative action is a step towards that goal. The Asian-American-Pacific Islander community is often represented as a monolith," Diep said. "Supporting affirmative action means actively challenging that stereotype and critically examining differences between ethnic groups and economic groups within Asian America."

More than 30 different Harvard student, alumni and staff groups rallied in Harvard Square on Oct. 14 to show their support for diversity on campus.
Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Gregory Davis, a fifth year doctorate student who went to UCLA's law school, told the crowd that California's ban on affirmative action negatively impacted diversity at that school and that he wanted the community to speak up for themselves.

"We belong here," he said. "And affirmative action is a right that we have."

Across the Charles River in Downtown Boston, Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard, held a rally attended by hundreds.

Some clutched tiny American flags while others held signs with slogans like "Discrimination In The Name Of Diversity Is Wrong" and "My Name Should Not Hurt Me In Admissions."

Speakers included Kelley Babphavong, a junior at Harvard, who said race-based affirmative action has had a negative impact on millions of Asian-Americans.

"Contemporary affirmative action has failed," she said. " The plaintiffs challenging Harvard have already shown that Asian-Americans are held to higher standards than others and often their rejection boils down to the single factor of race."

Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, acted as a sort of keynote at the event.

Blum, who helped organize the lawsuit that claimed the University of Texas discriminated against a student because she was white, was greeted by a chorus of applause as he took the stage to speak to the eager crowd.

"Regardless of the outcome of this trial, the movement to end racial classifications in college admissions will not end," he told those gathered. "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."

The trial is expected to last about three weeks.

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