Groups allege systematic anti-Asian bias in Harvard

More than 60 Asian-American groups have accused Harvard University of discriminating against applicants for their ethnic backgrounds in complaints filed with the Justice Department and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The federal complaints, the latest in a long line of legal attacks against Harvard for alleged anti-Asian bias, accuse the university of violating federal civil-rights laws by systematically discriminating against Asian-American applicants.

The complaints allege that Harvard’s admissions process gives excessive consideration to applicants’ race, uses racial stereotypes and double standards, and seeks to racially balance enrolments to the point of maintaining de facto quotas.

“Asian-American applicants are the most discriminated group by Ivy League universities, more so than any other race,” the groups said on 15 May at a news conference in Washington DC, held to announce their filing of the complaints. The list of national and local organisations behind the complaints includes the Asian American Legal Foundation, the Houston Chinese Alliance, the National Federation of Indian American Associations, and the Pakistan Policy Institute.

The requests for federal investigations occurred as a separate advocacy group, Students for Fair Admissions, is challenging the race-conscious admissions policies of both Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in lawsuits filed in federal court. Both lawsuits cite Asian-Americans as purported victims of illegal discrimination as a result of the institutions’ consideration of race.

Harvard responds

Harvard responded to the 15 May announcement with a statement in which Robert Iuliano, its general counsel, said the university “has demonstrated a strong record of recruiting and admitting Asian-American students”.

“We will vigorously defend the right of Harvard, and other universities, to continue to seek the educational benefits that come from a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions,” Iuliano said.

In anticipation of the 15 May news conference, a separate set of Asian-American and Pacific Islander groups that support race-conscious admissions policies released a statement defending them. It characterised the attacks on such policies as attempts to use “wedge politics” to stir up opposition to policies that encourage diversity and its associated educational benefits.

“Affirmative-action policies help to level the playing field and promote diverse university learning environments that are essential in our multiracial and multicultural society,” the statement said.

Other disputes

Asian-American groups have similarly been divided in other disputes over race-conscious admissions. They submitted friend-of-the-court briefs both supporting and opposing the race-conscious undergraduate admissions policy of the University of Texas at Austin when the US Supreme Court considered that policy’s constitutionality, in 2012.

Asian-American groups have bitterly opposed proposed changes in the University of California’s admissions policies that they perceive as putting Asian-American applicants at a disadvantage to try to bolster the enrolments of other minority populations.

A 2008 study found that state bans on race-conscious admissions at public colleges had led to surges in Asian-Americans’ prospects of being admitted to such institutions. The study’s authors, three former officials at public universities in states where such bans had gone into effect, concluded that race-conscious admission policies resulted in discrimination against Asian-Americans.

Supporters of affirmative action, however, have argued that what previously had been at work were other forces, such as discrimination against Asian-Americans in favour of white applicants.

The US Education Department’s civil rights office previously examined Harvard for alleged bias against Asian-Americans in the late 1980s. That investigation concluded that Harvard admitted Asian-Americans at a lower rate than white applicants with similar qualifications, but did not attribute the finding to illegal discrimination.

Instead, it said, Asian-American applicants to Harvard appeared hurt by their underrepresentation in two pools of applicants to which the university legally gave preferential treatment: recruited athletes and the children of alumni.