William R. Fitzsimmons leaned in and peeked over his glasses. “I’m not sure I understand your question,” he said into the microphone. It was the second day of arguments in the trial accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian American applicants, and Harvard’s longtime admissions chief was on the witness stand.
John Hughes, a lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), had been lobbing questions at Fitzsimmons for the better part of the morning. “Would you agree that race is a determinative factor for half of the African Americans?” he asked.
The answer, the plaintiffs argued, was simple. Harvard’s own expert had shown that without race-conscious admissions, the number of black and Latino students would decline dramatically. So he repeated the question once more. Hughes was trying to get Fitzsimmons to admit that race was the reason some students got in and others didn’t.
The trial in federal district court is, for all intents and purposes, the testing ground. Hughes’s line of questioning was as much an attempt to elicit an illuminating response from Fitzsimmons as it was an attempt to gather fodder for what could potentially be a Supreme Court case. The plaintiffs are trying to see which arguments stick, while the defendants are holding the line.