Posted on October 22, 2018

What Is Harvard Trying to Hide?

Josh Gerstein, Politico, October 21, 2018

The long war over affirmative action turned hot again last week, as Harvard and lawyers for Asian-American applicants duked it out in a federal courtroom in Boston in a closely watched case that could end consideration of race in college admissions.


The university had long claimed that preferences for recruited athletes and legacies served only as a tiebreaker between applicants with “substantially equal” qualifications. Officials had also claimed that applicants who are children of alumni tend, unsurprisingly, to have better test scores and other numerical ratings than others in the pool.

But the data collected by the Education Department contained some explosive information. It showed the athletes and so-called legacies who were actually accepted had lower SAT scores than the rest of the class and were also deemed less attractive candidates by the admissions officers conducting Harvard’s process.

Some of the comments those officers wrote on the application folders of admitted legacies strongly suggested something more than a tiebreaker was at work. “Lineage is main thing,” one reader wrote. “Double lineage, but lots of problems … no balance,” the notes on another successful application said. “Lots of lineage here … Hard to explain a NO,” yet another said. “Classical case that would be hard to explain to DAD.”

{snip} Many rejected Asian-Americans were described as “shy” or “quiet.” In some cases, those same adjectives were used to describe alumni children who got in.


The investigators’ notes also showed that Harvard was willing to admit recruited athletes with academic profiles well short of Harvard’s usual standards. {snip}

Although the federal investigators found the athletes and legacies to be less qualified to a statistically significant degree, Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons said that finding was immaterial. “Things can be statistically significant and completely insignificant in the real sense,” he told the Crimson in 1990.


Harvard’s documents also showed that while applications from “Chicano,” “Puerto Rican,” “Native American” and “Black” applicants were directed to readers from those groups, the other entry on that list was framed differently: “Blue Collar Asian.”

Harvard officials said the sole Asian-American admissions officer at the time, Susie Chao, sought to read all the applications from Asian-Americans whose parents had a blue-collar background and many of those from wealthier families. Applicants from other ethnic minorities generally got a minority reader regardless of the family’s background, the records showed.

{snip} Admissions officer David Evans, who is African-American, said investigators would “be surprised at how insensitive the admissions staff could be to minority discrimination, e.g. in Teacher recommendation,” notes taken by Education Department staff said.

Other comments the investigators recorded from Harvard admissions officials were more cryptic, even stupefying, leaving uncertainty about what advantage Asian-Americans enjoy in the process. {snip} There is a distinction between being ‘a’ factor and being a ‘positive’ factor. {snip} Fitz said that ethnicity may be a positive factor in a particular case, and it is always ‘a’ factor in a case.’”

In the end, the Education Department’s central conclusion was that Asian-Americans weren’t being intentionally discriminated against but were being disadvantaged in Harvard’s admissions process by the preferences for athletes and for alumni offspring. {snip}

Stories about the trial that opened last week often portray it as opening up Harvard’s system for the first time, but the two-year-long federal probe and the paperwork it produced yielded a myriad of insights that went beyond the treatment of Asian-Americans, legacies or athletes.


{snip} A precedent was also set for Harvard, and schools across the country, that admissions office reviews must be accessible to students, just as their transcripts and disciplinary records are.

Seeking to leverage the victory, I cobbled together several dozen friends and associates to swoop in with requests for their own summary sheets. I even took out an ad in Harvard Magazine to let students and recent graduates know they could seek their records.


Others said reading the forms was affirming because it turned out their admission was not as close a call as they had thought. The access allowed students to assess for themselves whether any kind of bias affected the process, but it was an imperfect window because of one of the limitations of FERPA: It applies only to those who get into a school and attend it, not to those who don’t.


Some university administrators threatened to destroy all their admissions evaluations. And as they responded to a flood of requests, they warned that some students were disturbed or even alarmed when they saw admissions officers’ notes on them.


What kinds of comments were troubling students? According to Reider, things like: “If Mr. X wasn’t so well connected we wouldn’t have admitted him.”


In the ensuing years, politicians on the left and the right have seized on legacy admissions from time to time, but it’s never really caught fire. “It is a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy, not 21st-century American democracy,” Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) complained in 2002. {snip}

In 2003, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) proposed some sunlight on the admissions issue: requiring colleges to disclose such preferences and their policies on early-decision programs thought to disadvantage minorities and the poor. Universities resisted, and the measure never became law.


In 2006, a book by Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden unearthed more about how Harvard uses the admissions process to court its alumni and big donors.

“I found numerous examples in which a child’s acceptance closely preceded or followed a major gift from the parents, giving at least the appearance of a quid pro quo,” Golden wrote in “The Price of Admission.” {snip}


Golden’s book made a splash, and his articles on the subject won him a Pulitzer Prize. But ask him today about their impact on schools’ policies and the legal standards governing admissions and he’ll candidly say: Not much.


Many say legacy preferences perpetuate discrimination akin to the so-called Jewish quotas imposed to limit Jewish enrollees at elite schools in the early 20th century.


Journalist Peter Schmidt insists it’s more than just an echo. He says the creation of official policies granting a leg up to legacies a century ago was a direct response to the surge of Jewish applicants and served as one of many tactics schools used to try to cap the number of Jews.

{snip} At the trial last week, Fitzsimmons testified that one reason Asian-American applicants get lower “personality” ratings is because their teacher and guidance counselor recommendations tend to be not as strong as those of white applicants.

Those challenging the current treatment of Asian-Americans see a direct line between the efforts to rein in the number of Jews on campus in the last century and indications that Asian-Americans are held to a higher standard today. {snip}


Students’ interest in seeing their admissions files and their knowledge of their right to do so seems affected by a unique kind of amnesia in which events that happened more than four years ago are quickly forgotten. {snip}

{snip} It appears that even Stanford had forgotten about the earlier wave of demands — the school once said it planned to stop keeping the cards but apparently began doing so again when the system was computerized.

The wave of 2015 requests spread across the country, from Stanford to places like Yale and, again, Harvard.

It engendered two kinds of backlash, one predictable, one not. Schools again began looking at whether to keep admissions records. After a group of Yale Law School students demanded their records, that school decided to discard its admissions records altogether. The law requires schools to comply with pending requests from current and former students, but imposes no particular requirements on what records universities must keep.


The less predictable response was a backlash of sorts among some students to the idea of knowing the truth — potentially, the ugly truth — about why they got in. “Don’t Look at Your Admissions File,” declared an editorial the Crimson published in the fall of 2016.


The paper did say, however, that it continued to support “in principle” students’ legal right to see the records. Many Harvard students are disregarding the Crimson’s hand-wringing, with about 200 a month asking to review their admissions record.

At Harvard, the admissions transparency battle has continued through the present day, now taking place within the federal lawsuit the anti-affirmative-action group Students for Fair Admissions has been pressing for several years. Court records show more than 170 legal filings or orders wrangling over what should be kept from public view in the case. Some of the fights are about how far to go to protect the privacy of Harvard applicants and of backers of the group pressing the suit.

However, Harvard has also argued that too much disclosure could allow applicants to “game the system” and put the elite school at a disadvantage to its competitors.


Harvard also complained that SFFA was essentially trying to dump the university’s files into the public domain, accusing the group of trying “clutter the docket with irrelevant exhibits in an effort to make them public.”

The university said its privacy concerns went beyond those of applicants and students, to include “alumni, donors, and other organizations” referenced in the school’s records.

But Harvard’s lawyers said even numerical breakdowns, such as “statistical snapshots of Harvard’s tentatively admitted class during the admissions cycle,” should be shielded. {snip}

Harvard also said one reason to keep its records private was because they could be misinterpreted. “Disclosure of these documents would likely force Harvard to expend significant resources to dispel myths about its admissions process that emerge from erroneous third-party statistical analyses of these data,” Harvard attorneys argued.


However, it’s unfair to say Harvard has been entirely resistant to scrutiny of its process. Virtually every news story on the topic in the past three decades features an interview with Fitzsimmons or Lewis, the figures who’ve run the system since the mid-1980s.


Just last month, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs punted until after the trial issues about public access to more than 100 exhibits the two sides disagreed about. She said some of the information might emerge at the trial. Indeed, some potentially damaging facts Harvard sought to keep under wraps have come out. Straight out of the gate Monday, the plaintiffs in the suit revealed that the school uses race-based PSAT-score criteria to send out letters encouraging high school students to apply and that Asian-American students need higher scores to get such a letter than white ones.

Despite Harvard marking many exhibits as “HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL – ATTORNEYS’ EYES ONLY,” some internal documents have also entered the public domain. A Harvard admissions office memo that appears to date to 2013 suggests that special treatment for alumni has eroded a bit, with the former practice of the admissions director reading all legacy applications now reined in to cases that “might require special handling” or where doing so “might be helpful.”

Harvard is right about one thing: Notwithstanding claims last week that the current trial isn’t about affirmative action, SFFA wants the school’s secrets told because it thinks that will bring down the curtain on the use of race in college admissions. The Trump administration has also weighed in on the case, apparently hopeful that it could be a vehicle to get the Supreme Court to bury affirmative action once and for all. (though the Justice Department’s filing takes no position on whether preferences for alumni are defensible).

But the fact that those demanding transparency have a particular ideological bent is no justification for perpetuating secrecy around the process.

Those defending Harvard’s system — whether its use of race, its approach to diversity or its preferences for athletes and so-called legacies — should do so on the facts, not by hiding the facts.

Often Harvard’s defenders seem to nurse a sense of grievance that the school receives such intense attention from groups like SFFA and from the media. Harvard is, after all, just one of many schools that take account of race in the admissions process, where Asian-American applicants seem to face higher standards and where alumni get a special boost for their kids.


With great prestige should come great responsibility. That’s why opening up Harvard’s admissions practices to the light of day is more than just the means to a good story or a cudgel in the affirmative action wars. It’s only fair.