Harvard admissions trial: India closely watches racial bias lawsuit

New Delhi, October 24: In an ongoing case that could not just transform the American higher education landscape but is likely to have far reaching implications for Indians aspiring to make it to the top schools in US, the proceedings are currently on to ascertain whether Harvard’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian American applicants. The ongoing trial is the latest chapter in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an organization founded by anti-race-conscious admissions activist Edward Blum, who has filed a range of suits in recent years targeting civil rights protections.

The debate evokes special interest for Indians not just due to the fact that it makes a case for Asian students, but also for the reason that only about 5 percent of applicants are admitted each year to the prestigious college.

Illegal discrimination against Asian Americans

Supporters of the lawsuit say Harvard illegally discriminates against Asian Americans, putting a cap on the number of Asians admitted to the university and making it harder for Asian applicants to get in.

Its opponents charge that the case is not even about Asian Americans at Harvard; it is about having admissions policies that give minority students a better shot at attending universities like Harvard. Beyond potentially affecting the future of affirmative action in the country, the case could also lift the veil on how admissions are conducted at Harvard, a notoriously tough university to get into with an acceptance rate for this year’s freshmen class of just 4.59%.

Remove racial identity, argue plaintiffs

In the months leading up to the trial, the plaintiffs have argued that the only way to truly ensure that Asian Americans stand an equal chance in admissions is if race is completely removed from the process. The university argues that its “holistic” admissions process is necessary to ensure a diverse student body and does not discriminate against Asian-American students.

Those backing Harvard say that a win for the plaintiffs could have far-reaching implications and limit the access to higher education for minorities. “It will dictate the future opportunities for millions of students of colour across the country,” said Nicole Ochi, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Within that context, Harvard’s defenders note that the percentage of Asian Americans in the College’s admitted classes has grown by 27 percent since 2010, and Asian Americans constitute nearly 23 percent of the 2022 admitted class.

Race as a foctor in addition to grades necessary for diverse class, says Harvard

In a legal filing submitted before the trial, Harvard officials said the school received more than 37,000 applications for roughly 2,000 spots in the class of 2019. The university said more than 8,000 of those applicants had perfect grades, and more than 5,000 had a perfect math or verbal SAT score. Considering things like a student’s extracurriculars, volunteer work, and race in addition to their grades, the school argued, is necessary to achieve a more diverse class than it could get through test scores alone.

Several Harvard administrators, including former Harvard President Drew Faust, Danoff Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana, and Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons will be testifying before the court. Neither SFFA’s founder, Edward Blum, nor any students are expected to testify on behalf of SFFA. However, earlier this week, the court had ruled that eight former and current students who support Harvard’s position would be allowed to give their testimonies.

Harvard is considered the best not just in America but across the world. The case assumes importance given the fact that getting an entry into such places of academic excellence means having access to power, which is increasingly held by a select few in today’s age and time.