Harvard, Asian-Americans group spar over data in bias case

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Harvard and the group Students for Fair Admissions will file dueling analyses of the Ivy League school’s admissions data in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian-American applicants. | AP file photo

BOSTON — Even though they bring stronger academic records than any other racial group, Asian-Americans who apply to Harvard University face the lowest acceptance rates, according to a study of admissions records filed Friday by a group that’s suing the school over alleged discrimination.

The group, Students for Fair Admissions, says Harvard routinely assigns lower scores to Asian-American students in subjective rating categories meant to measure attributes such as likeability, courage and kindness, putting them at a major disadvantage compared to white students.

Edward Blum, a legal strategist who founded Students for Fair Admissions, issued a statement saying his group’s filing “exposes the startling magnitude of Harvard’s discrimination.”

Harvard blasted the study in an opposing court filing and submitted a countering study that found no evidence of bias. In a statement, the school called the lawsuit an attack on its ability to consider race in admissions, which it says is necessary to gather a racially diverse mix of students.

“Harvard will continue to vigorously defend our right, and that of other colleges and universities nationwide, to seek the educational benefits that come from a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions,” the school said.

The studies were filed in Boston’s federal court as both sides attempted to persuade a judge to end the suit before it reaches trial, which has been scheduled to start in October.

It marked a step forward in a lawsuit that has lasted nearly four years and has drawn the attention of the U.S. Education Department, which is also looking into Harvard’s use of race in admissions.

Both sides built their cases on six years of admissions decisions at Harvard. The records, for students who applied from 2010 through 2015, are barred from the public, but the dueling analyses offered a rare glimpse into the secretive inner workings of the Ivy League school’s admission office.

According to the filings, each applicant is assigned a numerical value in four categories — academic, extracurricular, athletic and personal — along with an overall score that’s meant to be comprehensive but isn’t based on any particular formula.

Ultimately the decision comes down to a committee of 40 people who review each applicant. For students who choose to submit their race, Harvard says it’s considered as one factor among many that may “inform an applicant’s life experience” and the contributions they will offer.

But the study shared by Students for Fair Admissions, which was conducted by Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, says race plays a major role and works against Asian-Americans.

The study found that if Harvard relied only on the academic scores it assigns to each applicant, more than half of admitted students would have been Asian-American over the six years. Instead, they made up 22 percent.

Arcidiacono largely puts the blame on subjective categories that disfavor Asian-Americans. They received lower scores than any other racial group in the category for “personal qualities,” for example, and they fared worse than whites in the overall rating assigned by Harvard.

Yet he notes that Harvard alumni who interview applicants and provide separate ratings scored Asian-Americans higher than whites overall, a contrast that Arcidiacono says suggests bias.

The university says the analysis is flawed because it excludes applicants believed to have an advantage regardless of race, including relatives of alumni and athletes recruited by the school.

Instead, Harvard sought its own study from David Card, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who found no evidence of discrimination.

Looking at a wider pool of applicants and admissions factors, Card found that the effect of being Asian-American was “statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

Harvard also objected to the group’s use of a 2013 internal study that was uncovered during discovery. The inquiry, which was conducted amid earlier allegations of bias, explores the racial makeup of the school’s admitted class.

A chart from the report indicates that, even considering factors like legacy status and extracurricular activities, Asian-Americans would be expected to make up about 26 percent of the admitted class. In reality, they made up 19 percent.

Students for Fair Admissions said the report is proof of intentional discrimination and that Harvard “killed the study and quietly buried the reports.”

Harvard countered that the study was never intended to evaluate possible discrimination and that it was “incomplete, preliminary and based on limited inputs.”

The lawsuit raises implications for many other universities that, like Harvard, say they consider race among many factors.

In 2016, the Supreme Court examined the topic and upheld race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas, but the justices warned that other colleges still must be able to prove affirmative action is the only way to meet diversity goals.

Blum also was a driving force behind that case, helping Texas student Abigail Fisher sue the university. Fisher is also an executive in Students for Fair Admissions, according to the group’s tax filings.

Friday’s court filings followed a battle over a trove of Harvard data reviewed by lawyers earlier in the lawsuit.

Harvard argued that its records should be filed confidentially to protect students and the admissions process. Blum’s group said the public should have access to the records, and the U.S. Education Department weighed in to agree.

The judge ultimately sided with Harvard, but Blum said Friday that he believes the rest of the records will be released “in the next few weeks.”

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