A coalition of over 60 Asian-American groups has filed a discrimination complaint against Harvard University, claiming the university illegally discriminates against Asians in its undergraduate admissions.
According to the complaint, filed with the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, the nearly-perfect test scores, pristine GPAs and major academic awards of Asians were substantially more likely to be rejected than students of other racial groups, including whites. Research has shown that Asians suffer an effective “penalty” on the SAT of 50 points compared to whites.
“So many in the Asian-American community have not spoken out,” said author and business executive Yukong Zhao, according to Bloomberg. “We’ve been largely silent for 20 years.” Zhao helped assemble the coalition of mostly local Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Pakistani groups to file the complaint.
Asians certainly aren’t underrepresented at Harvard compared to their overall percentage of the population. While America is a little under 5 percent Asian, they earn about 20 percent of Harvard acceptances. However, the complaining groups argue this figure should be even higher given the proportion of high-achieving students who are Asian, and they claim Asians are subject to a “quota” similar to those Ivy League schools once used to limit the number of Jews attending the school.
To support their claims of a quota at Harvard, activists argue that the Asian percentage at the school has remained very consistent over the last 25 years, even as America’s Asian population has grown significantly. In 1993, Asians were 20.6 percent of Harvard despite being only about 3 percent of the U.S. population. Over the next 20 year, Asians consistently were between 15 and 18 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate population, even though in that same period their percent of the overall population nearly doubled. Over the last few years, that number has risen back above 20 percent once again.
In response, the complaint calls for the Department of Education to order Harvard to ”immediately cease and desist from using racial quota or racial balancing” and to take actions to ensure schools cannot engage in any kind of racial discrimination.
Harvard defended its admissions process in a statement.
“The College considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide-range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations,” the statement says. “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.”
The discrimination complaint is the second attack on Harvard’s admission policies in recent months. Late last year, the group Students for Fair Admissions, which claims to be representing several unnamed Asians who were rejected by the school, filed a federal lawsuit against the school, claiming its treatment of Asians was unconstitutional.
The effort could face an uphill battle. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the right of even public colleges to engage in limited affirmative action as part of a “holistic” approach to admissions. As a result, to succeed, it will have to be possible for investigators to demonstrate that Harvard has a quota on how many Asians it admits.
If the Office for Civil Rights chooses to investigate Harvard, it would be a repeat of a similar investigation that occurred more than 20 years ago. At the time, federal investigators found admissions officers stereotyped Asians and let them in at lower rates than whites, but nevertheless concluded that no racial discrimination was occurring, because much of the different could be explained by the admission of athletes and legacies, both more likely to be white.