For Harvard, Overcoming Implicit Bias In Admissions Is Next Challenge

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In this 2018 photo, the John Harvard statue looks over Harvard Yard at Harvard University. (Charles Krupa/AP)
In this 2018 photo, the John Harvard statue looks over Harvard Yard at Harvard University. (Charles Krupa/AP)

A federal judge says Harvard does not discriminate against Asian-Americans in its admissions process, but also says the school should look to improve its practices through implicit bias training.

As director of equity and inclusion with the Boston-based consulting group Carney, Sandoe & Associates, Lawrence Alexander has conducted implicit bias training at universities throughout the country. He joined WBUR's Morning Edition host Bob Oakes to talk about overcoming implicit bias in college admissions.

Interview highlights

On what implicit bias training means

"So we do it all the time. You make implicit associations about a good neighborhood, a bad neighborhood, a good place to turn right, a bad place to turn left..and if you follow that logic, we can pretty easily see this in the college admissions process. There are many folks who read applications, who will look at students' essays and point to syntax and grammar..I work with many students who had no laptops, who had no WiFi."

They were doing their best to write their essays in their phones. Those kids are just trying to get this thing done. They don't have the time, or the resources, or the adults to proofread and spellcheck, etc. So if we're not careful in calling balls and strikes, our application process will be wrought with implicit bias."

On what it will take to have real equity in college admissions

"I think that it's going to take some courageous acknowledgments that are really obvious. It's going to take the majority of these U.S. News and top report ranked institutions are historically and predominately, still white..."

On affirmative action

"I think about affirmative action as the smallest kid on the playground that the bully picks on. The bully skips past 400 years of slavery, institutionalized racism, Jim Crow which was legalized segregation based on race, 1954 Brown v. Board of Education..and of all the kids on the playground who really want to fight, they pick on the nice kid sitting in the middle of playground who just wants to invite everybody to the table: affirmative action. Why not pick on standardized test scores? Why not pick on the history affordable housing or public education? ... For me, I would say to that bully, pick on someone your own size. And if you won't fight all the kids on the playground, leave affirmative action alone."

The audio attached to this post is an extended version of the interview that aired on Morning Edition on Oct. 7.

This segment aired on October 7, 2019.

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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