Harvard Officials Defend Decision To Reject Race-Neutral Admissions Tactics

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Two Harvard deans defended the university's admissions process through several hours of questioning in Boston federal court Tuesday about how much school officials considered using race-neutral policies.

Their testimony came after Richard Kahlenberg, one of the plaintiff's expert witnesses, presented the results of his analysis Monday, which claimed it was possible to admit an appropriately diverse class without considering someone's race.

The plaintiffs, Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA), argue Harvard hasn't given those tactics enough consideration. But Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana maintained the school has thoroughly explored the matter.

He pointed to a committee that was formed in 2017 (after this lawsuit was filed) to examine the results of Kahlenberg's analysis. Ultimately, he said officials decided against using any of the suggested alternatives because each led to a decrease in the number of African-American and Hispanic students admitted.

"If we saw this drop it would be very narrowing for all students," Khurana testified.

"This was a bridge too far," added former Dean of Faculty Michael Smith during his testimony.

Smith explained that the race-neutral simulations the school considered showed that Harvard could not achieve both its diversity goals and broader university goals, like maintaining a reputation of academic excellence, if they didn't factor race into the admissions process. Harvard's attorneys took a significant amount of time walking through exactly how school officials explored the issue.

Smith said the alternatives broke down into three categories:

  1. Eliminating race but changing nothing else in the admissions process.
  2. Expanding policies that may improve diversity. This category included several alternatives such as expanding recruitment efforts, increasing the weight of low socioeconomic status, adopting race-based preferences, and increasing financial aid.
  3. Eliminating policies, which would include early action admissions, consideration of standardized test scores and "policies that allegedly benefit white students" such as legacy admissions.

Smith said that simply eliminating race resulted in a class that didn't meet Harvard's diversity standards. Options like eliminating early admissions were also written off by school officials. They reviewed actual admissions data from 2007, when the school voted to end early action, which Smith said showed that the applicant pool became less diverse. In the end, they found that diverse candidates who were also high academic achievers were instead choosing other elite schools that offered early admissions.

Attorneys on both sides also spent a significant amount of time asking Smith about why officials decided against eliminating policies like legacy admissions and preferences for children of faculty and staff. SFFA attorney Adam Mortara asked him if the decision was made for financial reasons or a fear that alumni donations might be impacted. Smith explained the committee was concerned with how that would impact a broad range of alumni support. That includes financial contributions, but also contributions of time and expertise.

But it wasn't just diversity levels that officials placed a high value on. Smith and Khurana both pointed to how race-neutral alternatives would impact the school's reputation for academic excellence.

SFFA argues Harvard can still achieve the proper levels of diversity if it increased the weight placed on low socioeconomic status. But Smith pushed back. He says doing that would cause the school to sacrifice too much in terms of academic achievement standards. Smith added that the presence of high-performing students was necessary to hire and retain top faculty.

In the end, Khurana and Smith maintained race-neutral alternatives aren't entirely off the table. They say school officials plan to consider the idea again in 2022.

Carrie Jung Twitter Senior Reporter, Edify
Carrie is a senior education reporter with Edify.