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Harvard Admissions Did Not Discriminate Against Asian Americans, Court Rules


And I'm Ailsa Chang in Los Angeles with an update on a case that has ramifications for college admissions across the country. A federal appeals court has found that Harvard University's admission policy does not discriminate against Asian Americans. The lawsuit against the university had been filed six years ago by a group that opposes race-conscious admissions policies designed to increase racial diversity on college campuses. Kirk Carapezza covers higher education for member station GBH in Boston, and he joins us now. Welcome.


CHANG: Remind us, Kirk, who exactly were the plaintiffs in this case, and what did they claim that Harvard was doing wrong?

CARAPEZZA: Sure. The group Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, has argued Harvard systematically rates Asian Americans lower on certain personality traits like courage and leadership. In the last year, a district judge weighed in on this and said, no, Harvard does not discriminate. In her decision, the judge cited 42 years of Supreme Court precedent that allows admissions officials to consider race as one of many factors. I spoke with UCLA law professor Rick Sander. He's a longtime critic of considering race in admissions, and he supports the plaintiffs in this case. He says the district judge never confronted statistics and analysis revealing what he sees as Harvard's intentional discrimination against Asian Americans.

RICK SANDER: If you took roughly the median student who gets admitted by Harvard, if that student is African American, they have about a 90 to 95% chance of admission. If they're Asian American, they have about a 25% chance of admission. This is not just one of many factors, right? This is a very heavy weight being put on race.

CARAPEZZA: Ailsa, of course, Harvard flatly denies that allegation. And in court, it presented its own statistical analysis. The college points out that the percentage of admitted Asian American students has now spiked to its highest level ever. It's at 25%. That's up seven percentage points from a decade ago. And the population of Asian Americans in the U.S. is just 6%.

CHANG: OK. Well, what did the appeals court today have to say about why the plaintiff's claims should fail?

CARAPEZZA: The court unanimously upheld the district court's decision, saying it didn't err in finding Harvard does not intentionally discriminate against Asian American applicants by holding them to higher personality standards. The court says Harvard values all types of diversity, not just racial diversity, and its consideration of race in admissions is constitutional.

CHANG: And have we heard from Harvard or from the plaintiffs in response to all of this?

CARAPEZZA: Yes. Harvard says the court's decision, quote, "once again finds that Harvard's admissions policies are consistent with Supreme Court precedent" and "now is not the time to turn back the clock on diversity and opportunity." Conservative political strategist Edward Blum, who's the president of Students for Fair Admissions - he says while his group is disappointed with the decision, their hope is not lost, and the lawsuit is now on track to go to the Supreme Court.

CHANG: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, how likely do you think it is that this case really will be considered by the Supreme Court? And tell us what would be at stake there.

CARAPEZZA: I think it seems increasingly likely. I spoke with attorney Ted Shaw. He directs the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina. Shaw says the appeals court has recognized this lawsuit for what it really is. It's a frontal attack on race-conscious admissions.

TED SHAW: You know, I think it's pretty much an attack through the front door on race consciousness. I think what they're doing is going in for the kill shot.

CARAPEZZA: And, Ailsa, in fact, the group's president, Edward Blum, says their goal is to get this in front of one of the most conservative-leaning courts in our lifetime and to end the consideration of race in admissions at Harvard and at all other colleges.

CHANG: Kirk Carapezza with member station GBH. Thank you, Kirk.

CARAPEZZA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, connecting the dots between post-secondary education and the economy, national security, jobs and global competitiveness. Kirk has been a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis.; a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad. Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway. You can follow Kirk on Twitter @KirkCarapezza.
Kirk Carapezza
Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, taking the time to capture the distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.