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Mythical 'Wolf Of Racial Bias' Closes Out Harvard Admissions Trial

Boston's Moakley Courthouse, where the SFFA v. Harvard trial was held. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Boston's Moakley Courthouse, where the SFFA v. Harvard trial was held. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After three weeks of testimony and data analysis, Judge Alison Burroughs on Friday gaveled closed Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard.

Over the course of the trial in federal court, SFFA has advanced what is arguably the toughest challenge yet made against what was once called the Harvard system of holistic admissions, which considers race amid a myriad of other factors when choosing its incoming class.

The long-awaited lawsuit could have major ramifications for the way selective American colleges handle race in their admissions process. But it will be a while before those consequences — whatever they may be — become clear.

After a series of statistical attacks on the school, Harvard's lawyers spent the last week of the trial pleading their good faith.

First, groups supporting the college brought several students of color — some Asian-American — to the stand to say that race was an essential part of their identity and that they appreciated Harvard's taking it into account.

Rick Kahlenberg, a higher-education expert hired by SFFA, had argued earlier in the trial that Harvard students are disproportionately rich and that the world's wealthiest university could do more good, and retain racial diversity, by simply admitting more students from low-income households.

But the students who testified Monday said that race tends to overlay in a compounding way with economic disadvantage. One such alumna, Itzel Vasquez-Rodriguez, said that as a low-income Chicana, she grew up hearing people say, “I didn’t know you were smart” or assuming her young sister was actually her daughter. In that sense, she said race — not class — is the most “visibly salient” aspect of her identity.

For their final witness, Harvard called Drew Faust, herself a trailblazer as the university's first female president. Faust argued that Harvard’s entire population became more diverse “in a lot of dimensions” over her 11-year tenure.

(Max Larkin/WBUR)
(Max Larkin/WBUR)

Faust remarked that the share of Harvard and Radcliffe undergraduates who are Asian-American grew from 3 percent in 1980 to 23 percent now. So SFFA’s assertions, she said, struck her as “completely at odds with the history of Harvard in recent decades."

On cross-examination, an SFFA attorney attempted to steer Faust back to the unseemly origins of "holistic" admissions, during a period nearly a century ago during which Ivy League administrations were trying to restrict the number of high-achieving Jewish students coming to their campuses.

Faust — trained as an historian — didn’t bite, saying, “To make an equation between that process [and today’s] is not something that I’d be comfortable consenting to.”

"There's space for believing that Harvard is not doing everything right, and for believing that this case is not the way to go about [fixing] it."

Priscilla Samey, Harvard sophomore

In that sense, Faust's testimony set up Friday's closing arguments.

SFFA's lead attorneys John Hughes and Adam Mortara tried to establish that, in Mortara's words, "the statistical battle is over... This will be written about in history books, and those books will say there was discrimination against Asian-Americans at Harvard — of that I am confident." The question that remained, Mortara concluded, was whether Judge Burroughs would force Harvard to rebuild its admissions system on firmer ground.

Meanwhile, Harvard's attorneys flipped the script on SFFA. Bill Lee, the celebrated Asian-American lawyer who led Harvard's team, repurposed a quote from Mortara's opening statement, saying: "The wolf of racial bias is indeed at our door," Lee said. But he added that it's SFFA, backed by the anti-affirmative crusader Edward Blum and inspired by a 2012 article full of racial generalizations that has brought that "wolf" close to hand.

Lee concluded with an ode to progress: "We ask your honor to turn the wolf out. Much progress has been made; there remains much to be done."

Outside the courthouse, the need for more progress spoke to Priscilla Samey, an African-American Harvard sophomore. She was wearing a shirt that read "I Too Am Harvard," referring to a student movement that has criticized the college's failure to support its black students.

That's not necessarily a contradiction.

"There's space for believing that Harvard is not doing everything right, and for believing that this case is not the way to go about [fixing] it," Samey said. "I think if you've been following the case — and following Blum's solution to this problem — it doesn't actually alleviate the problem that he's addressed."

Edward Blum, who put together the suit against Harvard, outside Boston's Moakley Courthouse on Nov. 2. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Edward Blum, who put together the suit against Harvard, outside Boston's Moakley Courthouse on Nov. 2. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

When it comes to mounting legal challenges to affirmative action on the basis of race, Edward Blum has been a force of nature. But he declined to speak to reporters for the duration of the trial and cut an unassuming profile each day in court.

Outside the courthouse, Blum read from a written statement, saying he "look[s] forward to hearing the court's final judgment."

Burroughs' decision is not expected for months, given her caseload and the volume of statistics and reports on both sides of SFFA v. Harvard. Whatever happens, most watchers expect the losing side to appeal the judge's decision.

When asked whether he thought this case was destined to wind up before the Supreme Court, as have so many affirmative-action cases before it, Blum only said: "The common wisdom is that it is." He then walked off surrounded by lawyers.

That day may not come for years. And it will likely be in Washington, not in Boston, where the Harvard system — almost a century in the making — will face its final judgment.

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Max Larkin Twitter Reporter
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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