Harvard Lawsuit Sparks Affirmative Action Debate

By, Crystal Y. ’20

Nowadays, as our political climate heightens, we hear fervent debate over a multitude of important issues, such as gun control, climate change, abortion rights, and more. However, another equally contentious but perhaps lesser-known issue has recently risen to the forefront of American politics: affirmative action.


Stemming from the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, affirmative action is a legal policy intended to rectify historic inequalities. Initially, the policy was introduced to target discrimination minorities faced when seeking employment in government offices but quickly expanded to include other sectors, such as education. Affirmative action in education “refers to admission policies that provide equal access to education for those who have been historically underrepresented” (National Conference of State Legislatures).


Back in November 2014, an anti-affirmative action organization called Students for Fair Admissions (SFA) filed a lawsuit against both Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, alleging that both universities are engaging in unfair discrimination by utilizing racial balancing to shape their classes. In particular, the SFA claims that Harvard is violating the federal law that universities cannot discriminate on the basis of “race, color, or national origin;” Harvard uses a rating system in their admissions process that has been consistently ranking Asian-American applicants lower in “personality” than other applicants. However, Harvard denies these allegations and claims that their admissions process is fair to all, regardless of race, but that they cannot pursue a race-blind admissions process in the future because of the need to “enroll a student body that is diverse across all dimensions.” Spearheaded by Edward Blum, a conservative with a long history of civil rights activism against racial preference laws, the lawsuit against Harvard recently gained traction when the Justice Department released a statement backing the SFA in August of this year.


As the trial currently unfolds in Boston, many are split on their opinion—both on the case itself and more broadly on affirmative action policies.


“I think … the standards for academic and extracurricular achievement for any Asian American applicant at many universities are much higher than those for other races,” one Winsor student said. She does not understand the justification behind higher standards for Asians only, wondering, “Why must we score several hundred points higher on the SAT to be considered at the same level? Why is it in any way okay to invalidate our accomplishments, our achievements, and our hard work simply because of our race?… I don’t think it’s fair.”


However, others are more broadly concerned about the implications that this trial may have on affirmative action as a general policy. “I support affirmative action but feel like the Harvard trial is a regression,” stated Mikayla Chen ’19. “The stereotype of the ‘model minority,’ which is problematic and false, is perpetuated through the admissions process… We shouldn’t be characterized by hard-working qualities or academic excellence; rather, we should be seen as individuals, and our accomplishments should be seen as a result of individual characteristics. We must simultaneously support affirmative action because of the diversity and representation it promotes while also fighting against the stereotypes that Asian-Americans are subjected to.”


“I felt like I had a stake in both sides of the argument,” said Mr. Sit, a Lower School science teacher. “I feel resentment when I hear that it takes an average score of 200 points higher on the SAT in order for us to be considered as having the same academic standing as our peers… [but] I also understand the need for affirmative action because of how it can bring equity to underrepresented minorities in terms of access to higher education.” Remarking specifically on the Harvard case, he went on to add, “The low ‘personality rating’ scores Asian Americans are receiving are not because of affirmative action itself; the drivers of these low scores are perpetuated by the harmful stereotypes of Asian Americans that exist in society and those that believe in them and getting rid of affirmative action will not erase those stereotypes that hinder the perception of Asian Americans in the United States.”


The debate over affirmative action, like many other political debates, is a complex one. While the outcome of the Harvard trial and the implications it will have on affirmative action policies in the future cannot be predicted right now, as the case is likely heading toward the Supreme Court regardless of the Boston trial, the final decision will set a broad ruling for the role of race in admissions at every level, from graduate programs to select preschools. It will change the face of admissions and racial diversity in education, as this case will help to clarify past Supreme Court rulings about affirmative action. Previous commentary on the role of race in admissions has been intentionally vague and brief, stating that race is a “plus factor” or “a factor of a factor of a factor” (Grutter v. Bollinger). As our time at Winsor comes to an end, many of us will apply to college, so it is worth keeping an eye on this case as it develops further.