For decades, the population of Asian-American students at Harvard University has remained suspiciously stagnant, even as the general population of Asian Americans has exploded. Asian Americans tend to have higher rates of academic achievement — standardized-test scores, GPAs — than other racial groups. While the Asian-American undergraduate population at elite universities that do not take race into account in admissions has soared since the 1990s, it has hovered around 20 percent at Ivy League schools, which do consider race. Against the notion that Asian Americans are a monolith of high achievers, it should be noted that the term denotes a heterogeneous collection of people from all sorts of backgrounds. But the substance of this issue is not complicated: If not for discrimination on the basis of race, there would be far more Asian undergraduates at elite universities than there currently are.
Now a group called Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard, alleging that it engages in unconstitutional racial discrimination against Asians in its admissions process. Last week, the plaintiffs released devastating evidence to support their claim, including an analysis of the data of 160,000 applicants conducted by Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono as well as a university review of the admissions process from 2013 that had been buried by the Harvard administration. The plaintiffs deserve to prevail in court; the grim state of affairs at Harvard is a direct consequence of the affirmative-action regime that reigns in this country.
Evidence shows the discrimination happens along two lines. First, Harvard evaluates applicants according to a “holistic” process that considers, in addition to their academic, extracurricular, and athletic achievements, “personal” qualities: whether they have demonstrated “humor, sensitivity, grit, leadership,” etc. Asian Americans consistently rank below others on the personality metric, despite the fact that admissions officials never meet most applicants. The internal review showed that Asian Americans were the only demographic group to suffer negative effects from the subjective portion of the evaluation. Second, even after the subjective criteria are taken into account, the university tips the scales further by adjusting for “demographics.” The specifics of this adjustment have been redacted by the university, but the review found that the share of admitted Asian students fell from 26 percent to 18 percent after it was made.
The evidence of discrimination is close to dispositive. Nonetheless, Harvard is insisting it does not discriminate. University president Drew Faust attacked the plaintiffs for “compromis[ing] Harvard’s ability to compose a diverse student body.” Their intention, she said, is “to advance a divisive agenda.” This refers to the fact that Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, is a white conservative who has a history of litigating against racial discrimination in university admissions — which we think is commendable, and in any case is obviously irrelevant to the merits of the case.
These propagandistic denials beggar belief. Harvard wants its student body to have a certain racial balance, and giving Asians a fair shake would compromise that balance. It is piling sanctimony atop deception because no university that is publicly committed to diversity can admit that it engages in systematic discrimination against a racial minority. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly forbids institutions of higher education that receive federal funds from engaging in racial discrimination. Unfortunately, the murky Supreme Court precedent on affirmative-action cases implicitly licenses such discrimination so long as it is well camouflaged. That precedent deserves to be overturned. In the meantime, Harvard should stop lying. It should stop discriminating, too.