Looming Harvard Admissions Case Endangers Campus Diversity

The closely watched lawsuit against Harvard University (Mass.)’s “holistic” admissions practices could endanger decades of precedent of that allow the use of race in college admissions, especially with President Donald J. Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The complainants argue that Harvard’s use of an ordinal personality test allows the school to unfairly limit its admittance of Asian-American students to 20 percent. Emory filed an amicus brief in July in support of affirmative action, but administrators must continue lobbying on the practice’s behalf. The fact that our society has left the Supreme Court and post-secondary academic institutions in charge of resolving issues of educational inequality is problematic, as neither have the power to address the issue’s root causes: discrimination codified by funding bills that stratify access to education. While affirmative action is worth preserving, it’s an imperfect tool to achieve a positive end; federal and state legislatures must address educational achievement gaps earlier in students’ lives.

The original 2014 lawsuit was filed by Students for Fair Admissions, a group of Asian-American students rejected by Harvard. Documents released in the lawsuit show that Asian-Americans are consistently ranked lower on Harvard’s “personality test” compared to students of other races. The group argues that Harvard’s use of the test, which measures intangible leadership qualities, is tantamount to discrimination against Asian-Americans.

While Harvard’s use of personality rankings that disadvantage Asian-Americans is troubling, the lawsuit aims to take a cudgel to policies which instead require a more nuanced approach to fix. Edward Blum, a litigant for Students for Fair Admissions, is already responsible for litigation before the Supreme Court that has devastated civil rights: he litigated Shelby v. Holder, which overturned Section Four of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Without it, there has been no federal mechanism to prevent the discriminatorily written voting rights legislation, such as voter ID laws, enacted in some states. Additionally, this is not even his first try at dismantling affirmative action; Blum also litigated Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the consideration of race in college admissions. From his past actions, it’s clear that Blum’s goal in taking this case is not a narrowly tailored solution to Harvard’s admissions; rather, it’s the elimination of affirmative action entirely.

The abolishment of affirmative action would disproportionately impact African-American and Latino students, yet it also would devastate college’s academic environments. Studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of on-campus diversity, which include more positive racial attitudes overall, better “cognitive capacities” and increased civic participation after graduation. In addition, a majority of Americans support affirmative action, according to Pew Research Center.

The elimination of affirmative action will not fix a biased system already riddled with students who gain favor through legacy and need-aware admissions. While some may believe that affirmative action undercuts the value of “merit” and adversely affects Asian American and white applicants who typically yield higher test scores, it is important to acknowledge that “merit” is rooted in a system of economic inequality reinforced with access to tutoring services and the ability to attend better schools with more educational resources. Affirmative action is necessary to mitigate these economic disparities for African-American and Latino applicants — who are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools — and to promote the diversity of the student body.

To see the effects that the elimination of affirmative action would have nationwide, California, which banned the use of race in college admissions in 1998, serves as a prime example. The percentage of African-American and Latino students at the University of California, Berkeley, fell by almost half, even as the state’s racial diversity increased. Emory has a responsibility to protect affirmative action, one of our only chances at dismantling these systematic inequalities, to ensure that our campus resembles a diversifying country.

Policymakers should, in turn, address these systematic inequalities from the beginning of a student’s educational career. Pre-K schooling can act as an “equalizing” baseline standard of education, allowing students from poorer economic backgrounds to make substantial gains to their literary, logic and foundational learning skills. Support for better funding of early childhood education is a legitimate means to mitigate socio-economic inequities in the schooling system, and colleges should only be one of many steps in addressing these inequalities. Instead of relying on the Supreme Court and universities alone to be the architects of equality, state and federal legislatures should take up the challenge.

The editorial board is composed of Andrew Kliewer, Madeline Lutwyche, Boris Niyonzima, Shreya Pabbaraju and Isaiah Sirois.

CORRECTION (9/20/18 at 11:52 p.m.): The editorial incorrectly referred to Edward Blum as an attorney. He is not an attorney, he is a litigant.