Harvard In The Eye Of The Tiger

It’s not that they wanted to be the wedge in the battle for affirmative action, but there is a dirty secret desire to end the discrimination against them, without becoming the target of the ire of others also fighting for their hegemony. Asians are in a very awkward position.

A group that is suing Harvard University is demanding that it publicly release admissions data on hundreds of thousands of applicants, saying the records show a pattern of discrimination against Asian-Americans going back decades.

The group was able to view the documents through its lawsuit, which was filed in 2014 and challenges Harvard’s admissions policies. The plaintiffs said in a letter to the court last week that the documents were so compelling that there was no need for a trial, and that they would ask the judge to rule summarily in their favor based on the documents alone.

What doesn’t appear on the surface is that this isn’t a broad movement by Asians to vindicate their right to be free from discrimination. This push comes from affirmative action foes, who are fighting the battle against affirmative action by using Asians. And the deeper problem is they’re right about discrimination against Asians, and everybody knows it.

The leader of Students for Fair Admissions and the architect of the case against Harvard is Edward Blum, a longtime crusader against affirmative action who has recruited plaintiffs, hired sympathetic lawyers and raised millions of dollars from conservative groups to challenge voting rights laws and affirmative action policies, often successfully.

If you’re antagonistic toward affirmative action, then Blum is on the side of the angels. If not (and I’m not), then Blum is a disingenuous opportunist who has managed to corral some Asians as pawns for his cause. The problem is that he’s got Harvard nailed to the wall.

Students for Fair Admissions includes more than a dozen Asian-American students who applied to Harvard and were rejected. They contend in their lawsuit that Harvard systematically and unconstitutionally discriminates against Asian-American applicants by penalizing their high achievement as a group, while giving preferences to other racial and ethnic minorities. They say that Harvard’s admission process amounts to an illegal quota system.

Harvard, naturally claims to be completely pure in its admissions, discriminating against no one ever and no Harvard grad ever farts. But, of course, if that were remotely true, half of Harvard’s incoming class would be Asian. For whatever reason (thanks, mom), they earned it through hard work and achievement.

Harvard’s response is that its admissions process involves mystical crystals that can’t be seen by the public, not to mention other colleges, lest they steal its juju.

The contents of the documents have been only roughly sketched out in court papers. But Harvard said in its letter that the parties have exchanged more than 90,000 pages, including “deeply personal and highly sensitive information about applicants to and students at Harvard and the inner workings of Harvard’s admissions process.”

“Harvard understands that there is a public interest in this case and that the public has certain — though not unfettered — interests in access to judicial materials,” the university said. “Those interests, however, must be balanced against the need to protect individual privacy and confidential and proprietary information about the admissions process.”

Waving the red flag of student confidentiality is always good for the groundlings, but may not play for Judge Allison Burroughs. So the kicker at the end is “proprietary information,” the good ol’ trade secret of Harvard. The black box. The voodoo. Or, if Blum is right, the racial quota.

“That information is highly proprietary to Harvard and of great interest to college admissions consultants and others who seek any advantage they can muster in the highly competitive admissions process,” Harvard said in its letter. Releasing it “would put Harvard at a severe competitive disadvantage,” the university said, and would prompt applicants to try to game the system.

It’s rather hard to imagine Harvard being put at a “severe competitive disadvantage” to any elite university. It’s not as if Harvard applicants aren’t also applying to Yale, and they aren’t likely to be stolen away by Middlesex County Community College. Regardless of all else, it’s still Harvard. Indeed, if it wasn’t Harvard, all those Asians who are denied admission wouldn’t want to go there in the first place.

But isn’t Harvard a private college, and thus allowed to keep its dirty laundry dirty?

The plaintiffs also say that the public — which provides more than half a billion dollars a year in federal funding to Harvard — has a right to see the evidence that the judge will consider in her decision.

If you need any further reason to find the Crimson annoying, it’s that the college with an endowment larger than many small countries gets half a bil in federal funding. It’s not as if there are any other schools that are more deserving of the tax dollars of factory workers than Harvard, right?

Harvard counters that the documents are tantamount to trade secrets, and that even in the unlikely event that the judge agrees to decide the case without a trial, she is likely to use only a fraction of the evidence in her decision. Only that portion, the university says, should be released.

For a great many Asian students, finding themselves in the middle of someone else’s racial battle is about as bad a position as it gets. They didn’t ask to be smart, hard-working, high achieving, so as to be useful as a wedge in other people’s race war. The last thing they need is to become the white man’s stalking horse. Why would any group that just wants to do well desire to have some other group put a target on their foreheads for a fight that isn’t theirs?

But at the same time, there are some who will privately bemoan the fact that they are very much the victims of discrimination because they are the victims of their own success. And they earned that success, and they should not be denied admission to Harvard because of race.

In their secret hearts, they want to see Harvard’s anti-Asian discrimination end, even though they won’t say it aloud. And Harvard is wide open to the charge, because it flagrantly discriminates against Asians, which is how there’s any room for anyone else.

31 thoughts on “Harvard In The Eye Of The Tiger

  1. Gregory Smith

    isn’t student body diversity a legitimate policy objective? my business scool (LBS) i am aware has admission guidelines that aim to make each class roughly 20% UK, 20% Europe, 20% N.America, 20% Asia, 10% middleast and Africa, and 10% Latin America. They have similar targets for the mix between those with accounting, consulting, finance, manufacturing and arts backgrounds, etc. – and also aim to maximise student diversity on other dimensions as well. I also know, for example, that they struggle to get enough qualified UK applicants, so such applicants of course have a better shot at admission. Is such a policy potentially not legal? Surely the law cannot mandate that a university must accept a homogeneous student body just because the most objectively “qualified” applicants are from a particular demographic. LBS doesn’t do this for ideological reasons – they do it because they want to prepare managers for the real world, in which graduates expect to lead culturally/ethnically diverse teams and learning in such an environment helps them prepare to do so.

    1. SHG Post author

      I think that student body diversity is a legitimate objective, but that’s not Harvard’s defense.

      1. Gregory Smith

        i know it’s “legitimate “; my question is “is it legal?”. I also understand it’s not Harvard’s defence, but I wonder why it shouldn’t be.

    2. LocoYokel

      What you just described is a de facto quota system. A question I have is this – “What is the failure rate among UK students if they are having trouble finding qualified applicants and therefore relax the standards to allow applicants who otherwise wouldn’t make the cut?”

      While I applaud at least the stated goals of diversity programs I believe that you are much more likely to have diversity of thought and experience, which are what really matter, between two groups from different social, economic, and/or cultural backgrounds even if they are the same ethnicity than you are among a group that all grew up in the same social-economic group regardless of ethnicity.

      (Pretty sure I’m pushing at least one of SHG’s buttons here, let’s see how this goes)

      1. Gregory Smith

        the LBS policy I described of course incorporates NEITHER „ethnicity” nor „socio-economic” background – the variable that is used by their admissions algorithm is nothing more than the home address of the applicant, or perhaps also the country in which they completed their undergraduate degree. But it is a course an appropriate proxy variable that is generally highly correlated with actual cultural diversity. Sure some specific individuals might get „mis-categorised” and more are hard to pigeonhole – i.e., different methodologies might have categorised applicant Obama as either Kenyan, Indonesian or American but nonetheless that would not mean that the algorithm would result in a student body that did not meet its designers diversity objectives.

        On a different note, i need to re-emphasise that LBS (and other instiutions) diversity policies are not based on ‚affirmative action’ social engineering goals (i.e., trying to give a ‚leg up’ to historically disadvantaged groups) but rather an understanding that a manager that isn’t prepared — in today’s globalised economy — to deal with the challenges of managing a culturally heterogeneous team is not properly prepared. And i know from personal experience this is true – at one point recently I managed a team of 11 – 2 brits, 1 south american (Argentina), 1 African (Morocco), 2 from Oceania (an aussie and a kiwi), 2 arabs (qatar), 1 N American (USA), 1 Asian (Philippines), and one European (France). There are not a lot of purely objective admissions criteria. Comparing GPAs of applicants from the US, European and Asian school systems is not apples-to-apples. GMAT scores are about the only truly objective criteria. My point is that if you say „we can accept 250 students this year, so let’s admit the 250 applicants with the highest GMATs”, and 90% of them turn out to be Asian, then those Asian students are not going to develop their abilities to manage effectively in cross-cultural environments and hence are going to be less attractive as graduate job applicants, i.e., you are hurting Asian students by admitting more of them.

        1. LocoYokel

          I did not say it was a racial quota, only that it was a quota system. By applying specific percentages to people based on their origin the school has established a regional quota. However, given that some regions are much more ethnically homogeneous than others it does also, to some degree, establish race as a secondary quota.

  2. PseudonymousKid

    Dear Papa,

    Uh oh Harvard. Civil discovery is about to smack it over the head. It’s got some difficult demonstrations to make in order to get a protective order like it wants. Can “it’s our policy not to admit too many Asians” really be a trade secret? It’s as if Harvard is saying its illegal policies if the judge finds so should be secret because release of their illegal policy would harm their competitive advantage amongst other cheaters. If it’s even close to being explicit in written policy there’s a quota for Asian admissions, Harvard should be more than ashamed. It should be tarnished forever by it, but that’s unlikely.

    Getting the whole policy out might open up a pandora’s box for Harvard. That’s probably its real fear. I can only imagine there are more potential plaintiffs out there than Blum drummed up. Scary stuff discovery and public proceedings can be. Too bad arbitration is killing it.


    1. SHG Post author

      Some issues are between two parties. Others implicate many. Discovery will not be Harvard’s friend.

  3. Hunting Guy

    Seems to me that Blum is doing what a good lawyer should do – use any legal weapon to win for his client. I don’t see that it matters if his views are the same as his clients.

    1. SHG Post author

      Blum isn’t the lawyer, but the advocate behind the cause. That doesn’t make your point wrong, however.

  4. Skink

    If the plaintiff filed SJ, discovery is over and Harvard wants the cat left in the bag. So does every other university. AA only works if some of the most qualified are sacrificed (the modern meaning, please). How else can the requirements be met? Of course, none of the loudest proponents of AA get that the wandering cat will do them great harm. Duped again.

    I don’t know where the $500M comes from because there’s no cite. Does that number represent grants, scholarships and loans from the state and federal governments? Likely, so it’s not much of an argument that information should be widely disclosed.

  5. Nemo

    If Harvard is insisting that their policy be kept secret, lest it be “gamed”, then IMO they are admitting that their policy itself is game that’s being gamed by Harvard itself. Keeping the rules secret is what allows them to win the game with every applicant, to accomplish whatever purpose they have going on. If no one knows the rules, then no one knows when Harvard is breaking the rules.

    Perhaps it’s a fault, but when organizations insist on keeping secrets, my radar goes live. Why are they hiding what they are hiding? Harvard’s explanation doesn’t put my radar back on standby, and it seems I’m not alone on that. This could get interesting.

    1. Dan

      Well, it kind of makes sense. Universities like to say they evaluate the “whole person”, but they don’t, and they can’t. They don’t know the whole person. They have snippets of information–a transcript, test scores, whatever they ask on the application, an essay or two–and from that they construct a picture of the “whole person” that may or may not have any resemblance to reality. Even if everything they’re doing is completely appropriate, if their secret sauce were exposed, it would make it a lot easier for the “wrong” people to get in–they’d know, rather than just guessing, what the admissions folks are looking for.

      1. SHG Post author

        There’s an assumption that bringing people of different backgrounds together will produce a “richer” student body for all, but your point that assuming diversity of backgrounds based on immutable characteristics falls short of “knowing” the applicant is certainly true. Then again, given social justice assumptions, every black applicant is by definition different than any white applicant, because privilege.

  6. B. McLeod

    I don’t know that the Harveys are “nailed to the wall” here. There may be demonstrable discrimination, but the test the Court has announced for university admissions (as distinct from governmental contracting) ALLOWS demonstrable racial discrimination if needed to achieve “a critical mass of diversity.” So, keeping out some number of highly qualified Asians to achieve diversity is OK, because reasons. Seen another way, they are simply being stripped of their “privilege” for the benefit of the students who want to attend class with the downtrodden and less qualified.

    1. Skink

      Very cogent. The law requires this type of discrimination, but, of course, it isn’t discrimination if it’s required. The universities probably would have been far more comfortable if this happened 10 years ago, when more people were thinking, not screaming. Now, they will appear more complicit in a rigged game, even though the law did the rigging.

      It’s not as though this is new. Both smart and dumb folks have long questioned whether admitting the less qualified was the answer as opposed to fixing the problem of kids arriving less qualified. But it was just occasional talk. Going into federal court in a profile case and saying, “but this is what the law makes us do” is a whole together different thing. Sadly, I don’t know if the information will result in howls, mumbles or silence. Someone might write a law review article about it in a few tears.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        It’s not clear that the ability to take race into account among a number of other factors allows a university to elevate race above all other factors. That would be more like a quota system, which is unconstitutional because the wise Court said so. The “critical mass” rationale is bull shit and creates this kind of parsing, but it’s necessary.

        Really, this is digging into exactly what Harvard is doing to create its preferred racial makeup. Harvard doesn’t want everyone to know, but I’m at least curious to find out. Let’s see how the sausage is made.

      2. SHG Post author

        The two of you together are dangerous. I don’t doubt that Harvard’s AA admission aren’t fully qualified to be there. They get to skim the cream. A few tiers down, however, could be a different story.

    2. SHG Post author

      By “nailed,” I refer to their defense rather than the fact of taking race into account. They can claim diversity plays a role in their decision-making, and they only want so many Asians, but that requires them to concede that they discriminate against Asians. That they refuse to do.

  7. Ken Mackenzie

    Most competitions are open about what you need to do to win. That makes it a fair contest. Telling players the rules should encourage the behaviour rewarded by the rules. Rather than foster “gaming” and consultancies, being transparent about a fair system should encourage applicants to strive toward meeting the criteria. If you have to hide the rules of the game, it’s not hard to infer that the game is rigged.

    1. SHG Post author

      Can one game being Asian? Black? The basics of admissions aren’t a huge secret, perfect grades and scores, plus some national (if not worldwide) achievement beyond academics, plus an additional factor of legacy, needed immutable characteristic or vast wealth.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        How much Asian do you have to be to be Asian and who says so? I’d love to see a University demand a racial purity test, but I love dark humor. It would be sad.

        1. SHG Post author

          Another fine question. Or does self-identifying as Asian (or Native American, Liz Warren) suffice? Beats me.

      2. Ken Mackenzie

        The basics of winning the Decathlon aren’t a huge secret: run fast, throw long, jump far. But unless there’s a transparent scoring system for those different talents, how do you fairly decide who wins?

        Or else it’s not really a competition at all, and the selectors say (as they did to Kevin Pietersen), “You’re the best individual player, but you don’t fit in the team we want to put together.”

        1. SHG Post author

          Not everything is scorable. There are ephemeral values as well. What they are, or how they’re used, I can’t say.

  8. Liam McDonald

    Affirmative Action seems racist to me. It’s like telling minorities that that cannot get accepted to Harvard any other way and are not there on their own merits.

    1. Morgan O.

      The easy response is that there is no way for you to know whether the minority could get there “on their own merits” because the game is so heavily rigged against them. There are good reasons to be pro-AA (which I am not), and when trying to deal with the issue we should at least start from the premise that the other side is not peopled exclusively by the oblivious.

    2. SHG Post author

      If they admit unqualified minorities, that would be true. But if they admit fully qualified minorities, with race as an additional consideration in order to achieve diversity, then no so much.

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