Harvard defends admissions policy
As case goes to trial, appeal expected from either side.
Harvard University’s secretive admissions process will undergo a rare public dissection in a trial starting this week of allegations that the Ivy League school discriminates against Asian-Americans.
Harvard officials, from the admissions team to a former president, will be asked to explain and defend under oath how the elite university considers race when it selects a class. Some Harvard students and alumni, including Asian-Americans, are also expected to testify in support of race-conscious admissions and the benefits of campus diversity.
But none of the Asian-Americans who the lawsuit claims were victims of racial bias are expected to take the witness stand in federal court in Boston. Their identities are undisclosed, and the details of their stories largely unknown except to confidants and lawyers who questioned them before the trial.
The public voice of Harvard’s legal foe is Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, the group that sued. Blum, 66, who is white and lives in Florida and Maine, is known for organizing legal challenges to affirmative action policies and voting rights laws.
He championed the claim that the race-conscious admission policy of the University of Texas was unconstitutional, through a lawsuit on behalf of a white woman named Abigail Fisher whose application had been denied. The Supreme Court upheld the UT policy in 2016.
In contrast with the Fisher case and other landmark litigation on college admissions, Blum said those who allege they were wronged by Harvard will remain unnamed in the trial starting Monday. They are, he said, members of his group.
“As the court and the parties understand, these students will remain anonymous because of the harassment and social media ugliness that public disclosure would allow,” Blum told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “The parties recognized that the harassment and threats made to Abigail Fisher during her lawsuit against the University of Texas compelled everyone to keep the identities of these students anonymous.”
A group called Asian American Coalition for Education and others rallied Sunday afternoon in Boston in support of the lawsuit. But critics question Blum’s agenda. “Is he concerned about discrimination against Asian-Americans?” said Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland, who supports the Harvard policy. “My answer is no way.”
Blum acknowledged that he had sought out Asian-Americans whose stories would provide examples for the case, much as he looked for white students to launch cases elsewhere. He said that approach was no different from how other legal interest groups recruit plaintiffs to combat discrimination.
“The cornerstone mission of this organization is to eliminate the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions,” MORE DETAILS
The trial, which could last three weeks or more, is the latest round in the long-running debate over affirmative action. However U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs rules, both sides expect the verdict to be appealed. Plantiffs’ attorney Edward Blum said he hopes to push the issue back to the Supreme Court in an effort to overturn precedents that allow universities, within certain limits, to consider race in admissions. The pivotal vote in the 2016 ruling upholding UT’s policy was Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has since retired and been replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Blum said. “Period. We make no bones about that.”
Courts sometimes shield identities of alleged victims in civil suits. Before the trial, Harvard challenged the standing of Blum’s group to sue. But U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled that the case should proceed.
Students for Fair Admissions filed its lawsuit against Harvard in 2014, alleging that the university limits the number of Asian-Americans admitted to its undergraduate college in an effort to boost applicants from other racial and ethnic groups. The group also alleged that Harvard has not given adequate consideration to how it might create a diverse student body without resorting to affirmative action.