After months of anticipation, a Boston judge ruled on October 1 that Harvard University does not discriminate against Asian-Americans in its admissions process. The ruling ends the first round of a contentious affirmative action case brought against the university by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) and the group’s head, Edward Blum, a long-time affirmative action opponent.
The ruling comes almost a year after the case originally went to trial, and nearly five years after SFFA filed the initial complaint against Harvard in November 2014. The complaint alleged that Harvard systematically discriminates against Asian-American applicants by unjustly using race as a factor in admissions.
When the case went to trial in October of last year, Asian-Americans were torn over the issues. A year later, not much has changed.
Some Asian-Americans, like Michael Wang, 23, whom YR Media interviewed when the case first went to trial, are still frustrated with how Asian-Americans are perceived as applicants. And Wang doesn’t feel like this ruling fixes that.
“If you bring up the term ‘Asian-American,’ you might automatically think of a person who is very hardworking, someone who has perfect grades and a perfect GPA. So I think a lot of racism tends to be systemic, but I don’t think the court addressed that issue,” he said.
In fact, a big part of the Students for Fair Admissions’ case centered on Harvard’s “personal rating,” where admissions officers rated students’ character separate from academic or extracurricular achievement. According to SFFA’s complaint, “Harvard evaluators consistently rank Asian-American candidates below White candidates in ‘personal qualities.’”
When Wang was applying to college, his top choice was Harvard. But he was rejected, and he couldn’t help but wonder whether his race played a role in it. He decided to attend Williams College instead, and now he’s in his first year of law school at Santa Clara University.
While he wasn’t associated with the Harvard case, he has teamed up with Blum in the past to become a spokesperson for Asian-American applicants who feel cheated by the college system.
On the other end, Emma Deschene, 22, has always been opposed to the case since YR Media first interviewed her. She just graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in May. Like Harvard, UNC has also been in the news lately because SFFA filed a similar complaint against the school for its affirmative action policies, although the case has yet to go to trial.
While Deschene agrees with Wang that Asian-American applicants probably have a harder time in the college application process, she worries about the negative consequences that black, Latino, and other minority applicants would face if the ruling went against Harvard. In other words, she worries that Students for Fair Admissions and Blum will harm non-Asian minority applicants with their lawsuit.
“I definitely think getting rid of affirmative action would benefit Asian students. But I think the harm that getting rid of affirmative action would do would be monumental. I think one of the things that people are really scared about is that it’s going to go up to the Supreme Court, and given that we have a Republican-leaning Supreme Court right now, if they rule against affirmative action it could set a really long domino effect of unraveling affirmative action and the benefits it brings to our education system,” she said.
That being said, it doesn’t mean she’s necessarily pro-Harvard. With all the college-related scandals in the last year, extra scrutiny has been turned towards top universities like Yale, UCLA, and USC.
“I was glad that we continue to protect affirmative action and the benefits it brings our education system, but I am still disappointed that a lot of bigger, wealthy Ivy League institutions get away with a lot. So I don’t necessarily want to root for them either. I don’t want to be like, ‘I’m pro-Harvard,’ because the school has legitimate scandals. But in this case, it’s more about protecting the education system,” she said.
Even though they didn’t follow the case very closely, both Deschene and Wang are interested in how it will play out at an even higher level. SFFA announced immediately after the ruling that they intended to appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, and all the way to the Supreme Court if needed.
And the ruling wasn’t a complete loss for SFFA. Judge Allison Burroughs noted in her decision that Harvard has already made changes to its admissions process (specifically overhauling the “personal rating” criteria) since the case went to trial. These revisions include specific directions to disregard an applicant’s race when assigning ratings. And any revisions, although minor, may have already affected admissions rates — the Harvard Crimson reported that more than a quarter of the class of 2023 is Asian-American, which is a school record.
And although he’s disappointed by the ruling in the case against Harvard, Wang is still pleased with the bigger conversations that the lawsuit has sparked.
“Regardless of what race we’re talking about, whether it’s Asians or African-Americans or Latinos, there’s been a lot of dialogue in this country about how minorities are treated in the United States,” he said.