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Does Harvard Discriminate Against Asian Applicants?

Pedestrians walk through a gate on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP)
Pedestrians walk through a gate on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP)
This article is more than 7 years old.

Is Harvard University discriminating against Asian-American applicants? A case currently pending in Boston Federal court alleges that yes, the nation's oldest and most famous university has admissions policies that disadvantage highly qualified Asian-American students...and extend preferential treatment to other minorities.

But are the plaintiffs calling for slight modifications to Harvard's admissions process? No, there's a broader goal — ending race-based affirmative action overall.

And just who are these plaintiffs? The lawsuit wasn't launched by Asian Americans. In fact, not a single such student is explicitly named in the 120 page complaint. Instead, the plaintiff is a group called "Students for Fair Admissions" — a group created by conservative advocate Edward Blum.

Blum has a long history of challenging race-based policies. He was the force behind Fischer v. Texas, the 2013 affirmative action case that reached the US Supreme Court. Blum also developed the Supreme Court case that led to the narrowing of the Voting Rights Act.

In speaking about the current Harvard case, Edward Blum told Reuters, "I proudly stand by any group that has been denied a place at a university because of skin color."

Is it as simple as that? Or, could the quest for fairness for one minority group end up further harming other minority students? And is there a better way of leveling the admissions field, than race-based affirmative action?


Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation in Washington, DC. He tweets @RickKahlenberg.

C.N. Le, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He tweets @CNLe.


Reuters: A Litigious Activist's Latest Cause: Ending Affirmative Action At Harvard

  • "The case against Harvard, filed last November in Boston federal court, argues that the university violates civil rights law by holding Asian Americans to a higher standard  to restrict their numbers. The complaint cites studies showing Asian Americans have better academic records than members of other ethnic groups but are disproportionately rejected for admission to elite schools."

NPR: Is Harvard Showing Bias Against Asian-Americans?

  • "Claims of discrimination against Asian students at elite colleges aren't new at Harvard and elsewhere. The University of North Carolina is battling a lawsuit claiming black and Hispanic students were given preference over Asian-Americans. One response to the Harvard complaint has come from Asian-American members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who fear it could be a 'back door attack on affirmative action.'"

Harvard University: Statement in Response to Federal Discrimination Complaint

  • "Within its holistic admissions process, and as part of its effort to build a diverse class, Harvard College has demonstrated a strong record of recruiting and admitting Asian American students.  For instance, the percentage of admitted Asian American students admitted to Harvard College has increased from 17.6 percent to 21 percent over the past decade."

This segment aired on June 18, 2015.


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