'We Don't Do That': Harvard President Larry Bacow On Discrimination, Admissions And More06:20

Lawrence Bacow speaks after being introduced Sunday as the 29th president of Harvard University. (Bill Sikes/AP)
Lawrence Bacow speaks after being introduced Sunday as the 29th president of Harvard University. (Bill Sikes/AP)
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A lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian-American applicants to Harvard University entered its third day of trial in federal court Wednesday.

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA) v. Harvard is shining a national spotlight on the role of Affirmative Action, diversity and race in the college admissions process.

SFFA accuses the university of putting too much weight on an applicant's race, which they say is making Asian-Americans meet a higher standard. Harvard denies the charges.

On Point host Meghna Chakrabarti spoke with Harvard President Larry Bacow when he first took office back in July about this very issue. Here's what Bacow had to say.

Larry Bacow: The admissions process should try to construct a class to bring together a group of students in a residential learning environment which optimizes the opportunity for them to learn not just from the faculty, but from each other. And diversity is an important component of that because we learn from our differences. So, we focus not just on a narrow definition, but a broad definition of excellence and intelligence. The vast majority of students who apply are extraordinarily accomplished academically. So we look for excellence in other dimensions. We look for broad intellectual interests across a range of fields. That's one kind of diversity that we seek.

We seek students who come from broad socio-economic backgrounds. We seek students who are geographically diverse. We seek students who are ethnically diverse. Having all sorts of students come together in a learning environment is the function of our admissions process.

Meghna Chakrabarti: "Nobody takes exception with that. But when you look at the specifics of some of the things that have been brought forth in this lawsuit against Harvard there is the question about, is Harvard going about creating that community in the right way? Recent court documents revealed that Harvard, the admissions office, uses a personality score as part of the overall suite of things that they look at with students, and that it seems as if Harvard has consistently given lower personality scores to Asian-American applicants. Things like kindness, courage, likability."

That's an allegation which we would dispute. And we believe that the facts established at trial will prove otherwise. There have been hundreds of thousands of documents that have been pored through at this point. There is not a single one which suggests that there is a policy to discriminate against anybody or to hold one group to a different standard than anybody else. We don't do that.

Well in 2013 Harvard itself conducted an internal investigation of its admissions policies and found, to a certain extent, that there may actually be a bias against Asian-American applicants, and let me just give an example here. The report found that if admissions were based on academics, extracurricular activity and personalities, that Asian-Americans should be making up 26 percent of the student body.

And if you read that full memo, one of the things which it says, the introduction to it says, that this is incomplete and it was based not on a full review of all the data. And in fact, if you take a look at the report that David Card, who's one of the foremost economists of his generation, has done, who's our expert in the case, looking at six years of data, complete data, not the limited data that was reviewed in an incomplete draft report, the statistics and the data show a different conclusion.

"There have been hundreds of thousands of documents that have been pored through at this point. There is not a single one which suggests that there is a policy to discriminate against anybody or to hold one group to a different standard than anybody else."

Harvard President Larry Bacow

What's stopping a university like Harvard from saying explicitly that in order to fulfill this overall holistic mission of admissions, we cannot and will not be accepting the most academically accomplished students who apply?

So when you frame the question as admitting the most academically qualified, who is the most academically qualified? By what criterion or criteria are you going to judge them? And here our admissions staff has had literally hundreds of years of experience to understand who succeeds and who doesn't. And so merely focusing on one or two metrics doesn't give you a full picture on who's likely to thrive. In fact, the decisions are made by a group of 40 people, one person, one vote, all voting on each case, with a fair number of Asian-American admissions officers voting along with everybody else at the same time.

We've been focusing on this lawsuit brought on behalf of some Asian-American students, but a lot of people looking at not only Harvard admissions but other elite institutions would say really the problem is the preferential treatment that legacy applicants get.

As a group, the legacies are an extraordinarily accomplished group of applicants. So their applications tend to be well put together. They have deep knowledge of the institution. So it's a self-selected pool which is a group by almost any metric looks very, very good relative to the broader applicant pool. But, I don't deny that we, like many other institutions, when it's a toss-up, tend to look harder at somebody whose family has a long connection to the institution. It's done because institutions like Harvard, they did not build themselves. They've relied upon people who've been willing to work hard to make these institutions the kinds of places that they are. And it's not just that somebody attended Harvard or a parent attended Harvard — we actually looked to see who's worked to try and engage the community more broadly on behalf of the institution, who's been actively involved. We do recognize people who've devoted their time and effort to help sustain the institution.

I appreciate your candor here because is this you saying that the money does matter?

It's not just that people who give, it's people who give of their time. That's what I'm trying to say. Easiest thing for somebody to do is to write a check, and our admissions process would be much easier if all we were going to do is to auction off places in the freshman class. We don't do that. To the contrary, we seek out students who are talented and gifted and whose families can afford to attend a place like Harvard. And if they come from families with less than $65,000 in income, those families pay exactly zero for them to attend. And we turn away students whose families are willing to make big donations. In fact, we tell people, 'We're not interested in your philanthropy if you've got a kid in the applicant pool.' It, I think, violates everything that we stand for to think that that would be how we would admits students.