Harvard Under Fire

The Economist, November 29, 2014

In 1978 the Supreme Court, in the Bakke case, struck down racial quotas in higher education. Summing up, Justice Lewis Powell called the undergraduate admissions policy at Harvard an “illuminating example” of a better approach. The elite Ivy League institution did not reserve a specific number of places for poor minority candidates. Instead, it considered race as one of several “plus” factors in a student’s file. Thirty-six years later, Harvard’s method of reviewing candidates is being challenged in a federal district court in Boston. The plaintiffs claim its admissions policy is a quota system in disguise that discriminates against Asian-Americans.

This is the latest legal challenge to affirmative action–and the first to target a private university–hatched by Edward Blum, an activist bent on dismantling Bakke. Among other campaigns, Mr Blum’s organisation, the Project on Fair Representation, recruits students who believe they have been unfairly rejected from universities that use racial preferences.

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The complaint against Harvard comes from Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a new vehicle for Mr Blum’s campaign. The SFFA has an impressive poster-child: an unnamed offspring of Chinese immigrants with perfect scores on three college admissions tests who graduated first in his (or her) class at a competitive high school, captained the tennis team and volunteered as a “fundraiser for National Public Radio”. The student was rejected by Harvard, the complaint alleges, because the university seeks to limit the number of Asian-Americans on campus.

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Mr Blum maintains, however, that Harvard’s admissions policy is “a figleaf to hide, dissemble and obfuscate racial balancing and quotas”. Although Asian-Americans made up over 27% of the applicant pool at the three most selective Ivy League colleges from 2008 to 2012, they comprised only 17-20% of the students admitted. This, the SFFA contends, constitutes “intentional discrimination” in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Mr Blum has high hopes for this legal battle. “If the case goes to the Supreme Court, he says, “we will argue that the use of race in college admissions must end.” {snip}

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