A lawsuit alleging Harvard University intentionally discriminates against Asian-American applicants shines a light on the increasingly frenzied admissions processes at elite universities, said Julie J. Park, associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Park, who was a consulting expert during the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard trial, researches the impact of race, religion and social class on diversity and equity in higher education. She shared her thoughts on race-conscious admissions review processes and the implications on Asian-American students at a talk Wednesday organized by the National Center for Institutional Diversity.
“Asian Americans mattered deeply to this debate over the future of race-conscious admissions even before this lawsuit,” said Park, who is Asian-American. “We have to think about how we fit into the broader landscape; what our stories are and how they might be used or exploited by others if we do not take ownership of them.”
The plaintiff in the case, Students for Fair Admissions, is a nonprofit membership group formed by Edward Blum, a conservative activist. Blum was key in orchestrating a lawsuit against the University of Texas, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled the university could consider race as one of several factors in undergraduate admissions, and Shelby v. Holder, which gutted important protections in the Voting Rights Act.
“This is part of a broader agenda,” Park said.
Park indicated that Blum’s intention did not seem to be that Harvard adequately addresses any implicit bias against Asian Americans in its admissions practices, but rather to dismantle affirmative action in higher education.
In court, SFFA argued Harvard punishes Asian-American applicants – by giving them lower “personal ratings” than those of other races. Harvard argued that its admissions process considers race in the context of a candidate’s whole life story — not independent of it — and allows applicants to distinguish themselves.
To fix the issue, SFFA wants Harvard’s admissions practices to be deemed unconstitutional as well as bar Harvard admissions officers from learning the race of applicants — an exclusion that could force students to scrub any mention of their race in their applications.
“We have to keep in mind that colleges and universities are tasked with preparing students to be responsible and engaged members of a diverse democracy,” Park said. “In order to achieve that goal, it is essential for admissions offices to assemble classes with members from varied geographic, racial and ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds as well as students with varied academic interests and even career goals.”
Highlighting the point that research shows all students benefit from more diverse learning environments, Park also referenced a report filed in the case on the side of Harvard by David Card from the University of California, Berkeley.
Card’s report shows the admission rate for Harvard’s classes of 2014-19 are 5.15 percent for Asian Americans and 4.91 percent for white applicants who are not recruited athletes, legacies, on a special dean’s list or children of faculty and staff members—all of which are also predominately white.
If SFFA were to win the case, statistical projections show that white applicants will actually be the primary beneficiaries, not Asian-American students.
A federal judge is scheduled to rule on the case this spring.
Park’s talk was the first in a series of events that will take place on campus to commemorate Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Month which runs through April 20.
“Our theme, ‘Breaking the mold: Exploring the facets of the A/PIA experience,’ strives to look beyond the stereotypes of model minority and perpetual foreigner, to critically explore what it means to be A/PIA,” said Ashley Chung, a senior studying public policy and a student leader who helped plan the series.
“Events this month aim to highlight underrepresented areas in our sociopolitical state and also provide a space for A/PIA students to truly explore what it means to see themselves and their identity.”