RIDGELAND — Earlier this month, Allison D. Burroughs, a U.S. District judge in Massachusetts, ruled that Harvard University’s use of race to ensure diversity in its admissions meets constitutional standards.
Harvard was sued in 2014 by a group known as Students for Fair Admission (SFFA). Edward Blum, the SFFA leader, alleges that Harvard gives too much consideration to race in its admissions practices and forces Asian American applicants to meet an unfairly higher bar in order to gain admission.
Harvard’s defense throughout this case has been that it considers the “whole person” in its review of applications. Test scores are only one factor in deciding who is admitted.
Lawyers for Harvard will be called upon to make this argument in increasingly difficult venues as this suit ascends through the federal courts. The Supreme Court will certainly have the final say.
Proponents and opponents of affirmative action have been watching this case closely. Whatever the outcome, the losers will allege that their preferred applicants will suffer discrimination. And whoever the losers are, they will be right. Any conclusion reached by the courts in this case will result in an unfair exclusion of some based upon their race or personal qualities. That Harvard accepts so few applicants means that there will always be more than a few individual and group victims.
Harvard’s history of expanding admissions criteria beyond test scores and academic performance, however high-minded it appears today, is actually rooted in a desire to limit rather than expand access to certain minorities.
Abbott Lowell, who became president of Harvard in 1909, was disturbed by the growing percentage of Jewish students on the campus. His supposedly enlightened policy of opening Harvard’s door to more public school students, based upon their personal qualities, was really an attempt to stem the tide of Jewish enrollment. This allowed the admissions committee to give less weight to academic achievement and ensure a more “Waspish” student population.
There are those who see Asian-Americans as the “new Jews” in higher education. I seriously doubt that present-day Harvard dislikes those of Asian descent the same as Lowell disliked Jews.
The current struggle over some members of one minority group being denied admission to clear the way for members of another minority group is an outcome of affirmative action that its framers did not foresee. I cannot blame Harvard for this. It is the nation’s oldest and most elite institution of higher education.
Ensuring the presence of a diverse student body will mean that some will feel cheated by the decisions of admissions committees. To be sure, no one there now is singing the song popular on the campus slightly more than a century ago:
I certainly hope that the campus does not ring with similar ditties about other minorities.
• Vincent J. Venturini teaches social work part time at Mississippi Valley State University. He lives in Ridgeland.