Searching for veritas at Harvard

Veritas , Latin for “truth”, is the motto of America’s oldest and arguably most famous university, Harvard. The motto, presumably signifying a place that seeks truth in matters scientific and philosophical, has special meaning for Harvard these days with a Federal court in Boston hearing a case on discrimination in its admission process. The case was brought by an anti-affirmative action group called Students for Fair Admissions. The plaintiffs are alleging that the Harvard admission process discriminates against Asian Americans in a way that violates the law. For instance, for identical scores on SATs, an aptitude test for undergraduate admissions, the plaintiffs argued that Asian Americans were less likely to get into Harvard than students of other racial groups. The Harvard Crimson, the campus daily, analysed admissions data from 1995 to 2013 and found that despite having the highest average SAT scores of any ethnic group, Asian Americans had the lowest acceptance rate of all groups. Also under scrutiny is a five-year-old report from Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research. The study found that the proportion of Asian Americans in an admitted class fell from 43% to 26% when factors like athletics, extracurricular activities, personality and legacy (children of alums) were considered. This proportion dropped to 36% when just athletics and legacy factors were considered. When, in addition to grades, personality (subjective criteria like humility, likeability and sense of humour) and extracurricular activities are considered, the proportion in the freshers’ class of every group (White, Hispanic, Black) went up except for Asian Americans. ‘Unremarkable findings’ Harvard Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons was accused in court of not taking action on the findings of the report. Mr. Fitzsimmons, who has been in the post since 1986, said the findings were “unremarkable” and already known and that a range of well-publicised factors went into deciding admissions. His job, he said, was to ensure the factors were applied in a “even-handed way”. Mr. Fitzsimmons also argued that Asians, if they were being harmed by the ‘personality’ rating, could be getting adversely impacted because their high school career counsellors and teachers gave them lower ratings in recommendations compared to their peers from other ethnic groups. Harvard staff testified that while admission referees were given extensive training, they were not provided written instructions on how to handle race. Yet, Mr. Fitzsimmons clarified that race is only one factor that is considered in admissions and it never negatively impacts an application. Harvard has, for long, had a policy of affirmative action and believes a diverse class positively influences the experience of all students in that class. Two other Harvard deans testified that the university considered 10 different methods to encourage minority enrolment without using race per se as a factor but found that no race-neutral alternative provided the current level of diversity benefits.

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