Harvard University went on trial on Monday over its admission selection process that critics say discriminates against students of Asian origin.
The trial in a US federal court in Boston pits the Ivy League school against Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), whose 2014 lawsuit challenges the use of race as a factor in college admissions decisions.
SFFA, which is headed by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, claims Harvard illegally engages in “racial balancing” that artificially limits the number of Asian American students at the elite school.
Statistics showed Asian Americans applicants outperformed other racial groups on academic measures, yet that was not necessarily borne out on Harvard’s campus, Adam Mortara, a lawyer for SFFA, said in his opening statement on Monday.
Harvard pushes down the scores Asian Americans receive on “personal” rating that measures an applicant’s subjective likability, grit and positivity and improperly allows race to play a factor in those scores, Mortara said.
“There’s no other possible explanation,” he said.
But William Lee, a lawyer for Harvard, told US District Judge Allison Burroughs, who is presiding over the non-jury trial, that SFFA’s claims were based on heavily manipulated data and “invective accusations and innuendo”.
He said that in order to promote diversity, Harvard does consider race as one factor among many, as the US Supreme Court has long permitted. But he said race alone never by itself explains why an applicant is denied admission.
“Harvard never considers an applicant’s race to be negative,” Lee said. “If it considers race at all, it is always considered in a positive way.”
The university also notes that the proportion of students of Asian origin has increased substantially since 2010 and today, account for 23 percent of the 2,000 students admitted to the freshman class, compared with 15 percent who are black and 12 percent who are Hispanic, out of 40,000 applicants.
The US Justice Department, which launched a related probe of Harvard after Republican President Donald Trump took office last year, has backed SFFA’s case, saying that Harvard has not seriously considered alternative, race-neutral approaches to admissions. The department also launched a similar investigation last month into whether Yale University also discriminates against Asian Americans, an allegation it denies.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration also rolled back guidance put in place by former President Barack Obama on using race as a factor in the admissions process.
The Justice Department revoked a number of documents, including Obama administration memos encouraging schools to take race into account for admissions and enrollment decisions to foster diversity.
The Trump administration’s move is more in line with the policy of former President George W Bush that discouraged affirmative action and instead encouraged the use of race-neutral alternatives, like percentage plans and economic diversity programmes.
Though such guidance does not have the force of law, schools could presumably use it to defend themselves against lawsuits over admission policies.
Civil rights groups criticised the Trump administration’s announcement, saying it went against decades of court precedent permitting colleges to take race into account.
“We condemn the Department of Education’s politically motivated attack on affirmative action and deliberate attempt to discourage colleges and universities from pursuing racial diversity at our nation’s colleges and universities,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement at the time.
The lawsuit against Harvard could eventually reach the Supreme Court, giving the newly cemented five-member conservative majority a chance to bar the use of affirmative action to help minority applicants get into college.
Conservatives have long argued that affirmative action, which aims to offset historical patterns of racial discrimination, hurts white people and Asian Americans, who outperform other minority groups on academic measures.
During the recent confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, civil rights groups expressed concern over the newly minted Supreme Court Justice’s past writing on affirmative action. A letter signed by dozens of rights groups pointed to Kavanaugh’s involvement in former President Bush’s work against the University of Michigan’s equal opportunity admissions policy, which included using race as a factor among many.
According to a leaked email, Kavanaugh said the University of Michigan policy was “unconstitutional because race-neutral programs should be employed, where possible, to achieve the goal of ensuring diversity and ensuring that minorities have access to and are represented in universities”.
Monday’s trial in Boston is expected to last at three weeks.