Harvard discrimination

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Discrimination at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.

Harvard University is the nation’s premier Ivy League college. It’s now facing a lawsuit that challenges its admissions policy. A group of Asian-American students claims the school discriminates against them because of their race.

Here now to tell us more about the case is Leigh Jones. And Leigh, tell us just the basics of what these students are alleging here.

LEIGH JONES, NEWS EDITOR: Well, Harvard has faced accusations of racial discrimination against Asian-American students for years. But the group Students for Fair Admissions finally filed a formal legal challenge four years ago. It alleges that Asian-American students get accepted at lower rates than lower students, even though overall they have better academic records. Now, many Asian-American students claim they feel compelled to lie about their race on applications to give them a better chance of getting in and because Harvard and other Ivy League schools are such a gateway to positions of influence in private and public institutions, including the U.S. political system, the plaintiffs claim getting shut out really limits their ability to shape society.

Well, Leigh, you read through the legal documents filed in this case, and I imagine that turned up some really interesting information.

JONES: Well, until now, Harvard’s admission process has remained shrouded in mystery. But we know now that a committee of 40 people evaluates all the applications and they score each submission in four categories: academic, extracurricular, athletic, and personal factors. And it’s that last category that’s at the heart of this dispute. Asian-Americans routinely get lower scores in the personal factors category, which is designed to rate characteristics such as likability, courage, and kindness. Students for Fair Admissions claims that without that subjective classification, Asian-American students would have made up more than half the students that got acceptance letters during the last 6 years. Instead, they made up just 22 percent. Now, Harvard claims it has the right to engineer a diverse student body, which means making sure it admits more of some races and less of others. But it also submitted a study showing the effect of its admissions policy on Asian-Americans was statistically indistinguishable from zero. In other words, it claims the policy doesn’t artificially limit the number of Asian-American students who get in. But, and this is a big but here: As part of the discovery process for the case, Students for Fair Admissions found an internal report, written by Harvard administrators in 2013 that showed Asian-Americans should have made up 26 percent of the class admitted that year. Instead, they totaled just 19 percent. That would seem to prove that Harvard knew about the problem but refused to do anything about it.

Well, now, Leigh, the Supreme Court has dealt with the issue of affirmative action in college admissions. How does that apply in this case?

JONES: Well, in 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the admissions policy at the University of Texas, which includes considerations of race among other factors. Edward Bloom, who heads Students for Fair Admissions, also recruited and represented Abigail Fisher, the student who challenged UT’s policy. Although the justices did rule for UT, they warned that other colleges using similar policies might have to prove that affirmative action is the only way to meet their diversity goals. That ruling affects public universities like UT, but it also applies to private schools like Harvard that accept federal money.

Well, now, Harvard is a private school and it shares that in common with Christian colleges and universities. So, how might this case affect those colleges and universities?

JONES: Well, it’s a good question, and we don’t really have a definitive answer at this point. But there are a few things worth noting. First, some, although not all, Christian colleges do place restrictions on their students through community covenants, basically requiring them to refrain from behavior that violates Biblical standards, especially in the area of sexuality. Now, the current affirmative action cases deal with race, which is a protective class under federal law. Things like sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected classes, but there are efforts underway to give them that status. If that happens, it’s not a stretch to see how an eventual ruling against Harvard at the Supreme Court, which is where most analysts expect this case to end up, could give some legal cover to groups claiming that Christian colleges discriminate. Now, they still have constitutional protections for religious liberty to fall back on, but they could face a situation where they have to give up federal funding, which includes things like student loans and grants.

Leigh Jones is news editor for WORLD Radio. She has just moved over from WORLD Digital, where she served as managing editor. And I should have welcomed you at the beginning but we wanted to get right down to business.

But Leigh, welcome to the team!

JONES: Thanks so much, Nick. I’m really excited to be here.

Me, too. We’ll talk to you a bit later. Thanks so much!

JONES: Alright!

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa) In this March 7, 2017 file photograph, rowers pass the campus of Harvard University as they paddle down the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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