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Harvard's admissions process is on trial and things are already getting heated

The courtroom was so full that most attendees had to be ushered into one of two overflow rooms to watch the proceedings by video.

by Lindsay Van Dyke
Oct 15 2018, 11:46pm

After years of allegations — and an afternoon of rallies and counter-rallies across Boston — the trial over whether Harvard University’s admissions process discriminates against Asian applicants has finally begun.

The high-profile case, brought by an organization called Students for Fair Admissions, concerns whether Harvard has been unfairly penalizing Asian students for their race. It's being heard in federal court in Boston by Justice Allison D. Burroughs, one of the judges who blocked Trump’s travel ban. On Monday, her courtroom was so full of reporters and supporters on both sides of the debate that most attendees had to be ushered into one of two overflow rooms to watch the proceedings by video. Of course, some spectators did make it into the courtroom, including Edward Blum, the so-called “architect” behind both this case and the last major affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas, who sat calmly in the third row.

Adam Mortara, one of the attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions, stated multiple times in his opening remarks that the trial is not about dismantling affirmative action but obtaining justice for Asian-American students who have been passed over unfairly in the admissions process. Mortara then presented statistical analysis, which he said shows Harvard rates Asian students lower on personal qualities like leadership, as evidence of that discrimination.

Bill Lee, Harvard’s attorney, immediately criticized Mortara’s argument, saying it was “80 percent statistics” and based on a faulty analysis he said he plans to dispel over the next three weeks of trial. Lee used his opening statement to delve into detail about the complexity of Harvard’s admission process, which he says ensures that students are weighed on a number of different factors, of which race is only one element.

Lee, who is Asian-American, ended his statement with a personal anecdote, telling the court that he was the only Asian-American in a room full of white men when he started trying cases 40 years ago. He attributed the growing diversity in courtrooms across America to the university level, and said that taking race out of a university’s admissions process would harm, not help, that effort.

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, was the first witness to take the stand. Things quickly became heated when John Hughes, another attorney for Students for Fair Admission, asked him about Harvard’s so-called “search letters,” which are sent to high school students who score well on the PSAT and SAT exams. At one point, Hughes brandished an internal chart used by Harvard to show that the school defines how well a student scored based on a combination of race and geography.

When Harvard determines who gets a letter, Hughes said, it breaks down a student's race into one of four categories: white, Asian, non-Asian minority groups, and “Sparse Country,” a separate category for students who identify as white and other but live in one of 20 states, mostly located in the heartland. Each category then has its own SAT score threshold. In order to qualify as a white male student, for example, you would need to score at least a 1380. Asian males have the same cutoff. For white kids in "Sparse Country" states, however, the entry point is 1310.

Hughes asked Fitzsimmons why a white student who scored a 1310 in a “Sparse Country” area might receive a search letter but an Asian student from the same area would need a 1380. "The only difference you have is race,” Hughes said. Fitzsimmons, who disagreed, said the letters were just one way to encourage students from underrepresented populations at Harvard. “We are simply trying to attract students with lower admissions,” he said.

The trial is now underway, but the debate is far from over, both figuratively and literally: Hughes only partially made it through his line of questioning with Fitzsimmons. He'll resume Tuesday at 10 a.m.

Cover image: Demonstrators supporting Harvard University's admission process hold signs and gather during a protest outside of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Harvard station in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018. Photographer: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images