Justice Department decisively moves in favor of Indian-American, Asian-American complaints of alleged discrimination by Harvard

Harvard College. (Photo: harvard.edu by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer)
A double-exposure image, where iconic elements overlap and converge in surprising ways. Johnston Gate, the first, largest, and most lavishly constructed entrance to Harvard Yard, arches over the Littauer Building. (Photo: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer)

The Department of Justice today (Aug. 30) came down decisively in favor of the many Indian-American and Asian-American students and parents, as well as organizations that have alleged Harvard was discriminating against them in the admissions process.

The Department filed a Statement of Interest arguing that Harvard College has failed to show that it does not unlawfully discriminate against Asian Americans including Indian-Americans during the admissions process and asserts that the plaintiffs who include Indian-American parents and students have provided “compelling evidence” to support their case against the Ivy League institution.

The Department opened a Title VI investigation into Harvard’s admissions process in 2017 based upon a complaint filed by more than 60 Asian-American organizations, including a number of Indian-American organizations.

Now the Justice Department has come out clearly on the side of the plaintiffs in the case of Students For Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President And Fellows Of Harvard College in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Students For Fair Admissions, an organization of students and parents, alleges that Harvard College intentionally discriminates against Asian-American applicants when making admissions decisions.

The SFFA’s brief seeks relief from Harvard’s alleged discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a cornerstone civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

Several news reports have contended that Harvard may be using different benchmarks for Indian-American and East Asian students during the admissions process, in a way that results in a quota system that prevents more Asian students from qualifying for admissions despite their grades.

As a condition [1] of receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer funding every year, Harvard specifically agrees to not discriminate on the basis of race in its admissions decisions, the Justice Department notes.

“However, the students and parents who brought this suit have presented compelling evidence that Harvard’s use of race unlawfully discriminates against Asian Americans.  In today’s filing, the United States urges the court to grant the plaintiffs the opportunity to prove these claims at trial.

“No American should be denied admission to school because of their race. As a recipient of taxpayer dollars, Harvard has a responsibility to conduct its admissions policy without racial discrimination by using meaningful admissions criteria that meet lawful requirements,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quoted saying in a statement. “The Department of Justice has the responsibility to protect the civil rights of the American people. This case is significant because the admissions policies at our colleges and universities are important and must be conducted lawfully,” Sessions added.

“Harvard admits that it uses race to decide whether to admit certain applicants to the college. Under Supreme Court precedent, Harvard must demonstrate that its use of race does not result in illegal discrimination,” said the Justice Department in its press release, concluding, that Harvard had failed to do so, and that the  plaintiffs should be allowed to proceed to a trial.

“While Harvard admits to using race in its admissions process, it has failed to provide any meaningful criteria to explain how it weighs race against other factors in a candidate’s application (e.g., test scores and extracurricular activities), and how it limits its use of race to ensure that no illegal discrimination occurs. Supreme Court precedent requires Harvard to provide such an explanation, which it has failed to do in this case,” the Justice Department said.

Further, the evidence shows that Harvard uses a “personal rating” that may be biased against Asian Americans, the press release notes.  “Based solely on a review of the applicant’s file, Harvard scores its applicants based on “subjective” factors such as “likability” and being a “good person” with “human qualities.” Harvard admits that, on average, it scores Asian-American applicants lower on this “personal rating” than applicants of other races,” the Justice Department points out in the press release.

“Substantial evidence also demonstrates that Harvard admissions officers and committees consistently monitor and manipulate the racial makeup of incoming classes, which has resulted in stable racial demographics in Harvard’s admitted classes from year to year,” the Justice Department said, adding that the Supreme Court had ruled that such efforts to “racially balance” the makeup of a student body is “patently unconstitutional.”

“Finally, the Justice Department has determined that Harvard—while using race to make admissions decisions for more than 45 years—has never seriously considered alternative, race-neutral ways to compile a diverse student body, which it is required to do under existing law,” the Statement of Interest says, according to the press release.



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