Recent investigations fuel controversy regarding who gets through Harvard’s gates. (Flickr)
I sit at the dinner table with my family one rainy evening, talking about my college applications. We decide to leave all socio-economic information blank, in an effort to conceal my racial identity. I pessimistically note that my middle names are a red flag as to my Indian heritage. Despite this, I still try to omit any identifying information wherever I can. This practice may seem strange, but it is part of the sad reality that many Asian-Americans have become normalized to in our society.
The consideration of race in college admissions has been a hot topic for decades, but recent investigations concerning admissions practices has shoved this issue into the political spotlight.
Friday, November 2, marked the closure of a 15 day trial investigating Harvard University for allegedly discriminating against Asian American students. The plaintiff group, Students for Fair Admissions, claims that universities like Harvard hold Asian applicants to a different standard as part of their affirmative action policies.
Naturally, this trial was notorious among students and faculty alike, who felt like their Harvard experience would be impacted by the outcome of the trial. The courthouse was packed everyday with spectators. The trial included many emotional testimonies from students who felt like they were either helped or hurt by Harvard’s affirmative action.
One side effect of the trial is the exposure of Harvard’s admissions secrets. In order to defend their practices, many uncomfortable facets of the admissions process were examined. For example, Harvard gives preference to applicants who live in underrepresented areas, such as rural communities.
Harvard is not alone in facing scrutiny against its admission policies. Many other well-known universities have also dealt with controversy over alleged racial preference in admissions. On Thursday, November 15, a similar lawsuit was filed against the University of California. It pressured the school to release admissions data, which could reveal biases in the admissions process. Unlike Harvard, which openly considers the race of its applicants, all University of California campuses are prohibited from doing so by law.
Supporters of these lawsuits argue that the affirmative action programs of many elite universities systematically discriminate against applicants of East and South Asian descent. Looking at the presented data, there is validity to these claims. A study presented by the plaintiff group found that while Asian applicants tended to have excellent grades, activities, and test scores, they were consistently rated lower on a “personality” factor. Whether this is caused by certain cultural factors or methodical discrimination is unclear, yet it challenges every notion of a fair process.
Judge Allison Burroughs, a politically impartial Massachusetts District Judge, is expected to release her findings from the trial in the coming months. Both sides, however, have asserted that they will appeal the case, meaning a future ruling from the Supreme Court could be possible.
One thing that is certain, however, is that these lawsuits are not simply about Asian Americans. They are about affirmative action programs as a whole. Many of the civil rights groups attacking Harvard strive to get rid of race-conscious admissions programs altogether. The Supreme Court has previously ruled in favor of affirmative action programs to promote diversity, but an appeal of the Harvard lawsuit could result in critical reconsideration.
This probe into university admissions is a step in the right direction. While affirmative action was widely implemented to promote diversity, its manifestation has resulted in damaging conditions for all students. To Asian applicants, the college admissions process sends the stark message of, “due to your race, your merit and accomplishments aren’t worth as much to us.” To the students the process selects for, the message is thus: “because of your identity, we didn’t expect you to be so qualified.” Not only is this demeaning, it is downright despicable in concept. Universities are so blinded by their false sense of morality and benevolence that they do not realize their message is unjustly skewed.
Many critics of affirmative action agree that campus diversity can still be obtained without the use of racial admissions policies. For example, colleges could still consider other socio-economic factors without being discriminatory. If a school wants to judge the difficulty of an applicant’s developmental background, race should not be the primary factor.
If elite universities like Harvard want to be bastions of freedom and equality, they must set the precedent and treat all applicants the same. No longer should race or ethnicity be considered in a “holistic” merit-based application process. No longer should I, or any Asian-American, feel pressured to hide parts of my identity on applications. It is time that all applicants are granted the equal opportunity they have always been promised, and the recent Harvard trial gives me hope that other Americans feel the same way.