A federal court has in recent weeks unsealed a trove of documents revealing how Harvard decides whom to admit out of the 40,000 or so students who apply each year for its roughly 1,600 freshman seats. The documents, provided as part of a 2014 lawsuit filed by the organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which represents Asian Americans who at some point were rejected from Harvard, contain compelling evidence that the university’s admissions system disadvantages Asian applicants. Behind the scenes, the plaintiffs allege, the school’s admissions officers engaged in crafty tactics to build freshman classes comprised of students with a range of backgrounds, interests, and strengths. This scheme, according to the lawsuit, which is slated to go to trial in October, entails a degree of racial balancing that disadvantages Asian Americans and thus violates federal civil-rights law.
I’ve argued that ascertaining whether Harvard does indeed discriminate on the basis of race is all but impossible. The university, like most of the country’s elite higher-education institutions, takes a holistic approach to admissions: Rather than looking strictly at an applicant’s standardized-test scores and GPA, officers also consider where she’s from (to ensure geographic diversity on campus), what her professional goals are (to ensure academic diversity), what her non-academic strengths are (to ensure extracurricular diversity), what kind of person she is (to ensure incoming freshmen will infuse the campus culture with leadership, charisma, and benevolence), and so on. The court filings suggest that Asian American applicants in particular are penalized when it comes to that last category. They consistently received lower rankings when it came to their soft skills—traits ranging from “likeability” to “courage”—which aligns with harmful stereotypes about Asian Americans. This seemed to indicate that some degree of racial bias is influencing admissions decisions—though it hardly proves it.