Affirmative Action… Not Gaining Traction

Harvard Square
Harvard Square

On April 6th, 2018, The U.S. Justice Department announced that it might formally enter a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian American applicants as the agency probes its admissions policies for potential civil rights violations. On April 10th, the case moved a step further as a U.S. district judge proposed a tentative October trial date and suggested ground rules for admissions records to be made public in upcoming months. Harvard denies the allegations and is seeking to prevent public disclosure of any evidence its attorneys say would compromise the privacy of applicants and under­mine the admissions process. The university asserts that race is only one factor among many in what it calls a holistic review of applications. It also contends that schools have a compelling educational interest in seeking racial diversity. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of the use of race in college admissions despite the continuing debate about affirmative action.

In a great effort to protect the privacy of applicants as well as the inner workings of its admissions process, Harvard argued that various documents should be initially filed under seal pending the judge’s review. The Justice Department said it opposed Harvard’s request, joining Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), the group behind the case, which has urged the disclosure of “powerful” evidence showing Harvard is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Title VI states that, “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races [colors, and national origins] contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin] discrimination”. So, if the accusations against Harvard are true, the university is in direct violation of the law and will have to undergo major scrutiny for their past, present, and future admission practices.

Unfortunately, compared to most colleges and universities, Harvard is considered a relatively diverse campus. According to the 2018 statistics of, 40% of the undergraduate student population is White, 21% is Asian, 12% is Hispanic/Latino, 11% are non-U.S. residents, 8% is Black or African American, 7% are two or more races, and 2% are reported as ethnically unknown. On a college campus, diversity is integral to the learning experience. If classrooms were filled only with students that shared the same opinions and viewpoints it would detract and be a disservice to education. Limiting the number of students per freshman class that are admitted to a school based on race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. does not follow the holistic admission approach that most colleges claim to employ.

In Harvard’s case, one of the central arguments made is the importance of maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of applicants. However, the statistics of race in each class year are public knowledge and easily accessible. Should Harvard University be forced to disclose all of their applicants’ information for the greater good of investigating a pattern of discrimination?

1 thought on “Affirmative Action… Not Gaining Traction”

  1. Lily, thank you for writing about this, I had no idea that this was going on at Harvard. Something that I am wondering about Harvard’s defensive response to these allegations is whether or not this is some sort of defense mechanism for being accused of being racist. Typically, on an individual level, it is not out of the ordinary for a White person to respond with hostility toward allegations of being racist, and I am assuming that it works the same on a collective level as well. You said that they used the argument about “maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of applicants” and to me this sounds like Harvard is using defensive mechanisms and blaming external factors rather than looking at their own institution with a critical perspective.

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