Posted on May 13, 2020

Harvard’s Affirmative Action Program Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect

Yuvraj Joshi, Slate, May 11, 2020

This week, the major affirmative action case of the Trump era, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, is moving through the appeal process.

In September 2019, a federal judge upheld Harvard College’s admissions program against a challenge from Edward Blum, who also brought Abigail Fisher’s unsuccessful case against the University of Texas at Austin. Blum is the president of Students for Fair Admission, an organization with the mission “to eliminate the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions.”

In court filings, lawyers for SFFA argue that Harvard’s admissions program, which aims to treat race as one of several factors in a holistic review of applicants, is flawed and must be stopped permanently—no matter that this may result in far fewer black, Latinx, and Native American students.

Even if Harvard’s admissions process has flaws, though, that doesn’t justify ending affirmative action altogether. Affirmative action doesn’t need to be perfect in order to be valuable and worth preserving.

This insight is grounded in the field of “transitional justice,” which helps societies deal with traumatic histories. This field teaches us that measures implemented to address massive human rights abuses are often less than ideal; perfect solutions are not achievable when transitioning from a deeply flawed world of oppression. Such measures are still needed, however, because doing nothing about the legacies of past wrongs is often worse than doing something imperfect.


{snip} In last year’s ruling, District Judge Allison D. Burroughs of the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts concluded that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans in its admissions process. She noted that Harvard’s admissions process would benefit from implicit bias trainings for admissions officers, further guidelines on the use of race in admissions decisions, and attention to significant race-related disparities in ratings.

But an admissions process doesn’t have to be “perfect” in order to be constitutional, and Harvard’s process had met the relevant legal standards. {snip}

Ultimately, retaining affirmative action, despite its imperfections, is necessary because it will help the United States transition to a society in which affirmative action is no longer needed. {snip}


Since affirmative action has proved successful in diversifying American universities, courts should be wary of limiting affirmative action in ways that diminish its positive contributions. {snip}

Affirmative action may place burdens on or breed resentments among nonbeneficiaries and still be worth pursuing. {snip}