The Trump Justice Department (DoJ) is taking up a federal complaint filed by Asian-Americans alleging racially discriminatory practices by Harvard University. “The Department of Justice takes seriously any potential violation of an individual’s civil and constitutional rights,” claims Devin O’Malley, spokesman for the DoJ. But make no mistake about this unlikely and unholy alliance: the Trump Administration’s stance is not about Asian-American college applicants; rather, the Department of Justice is merely using Asians to advance their political agenda.
Many in the American right, including much of the Trump Administration, have long believed in “reverse-discrimination”: that admissions offices across the country unfairly favor Latino/a, African-American, and other minority applicants over White students. The theory goes a bit like this: Colleges should admit based upon each applicant’s academic merit but do not because then colleges would be full of Caucasians and Asians (proponents of this theory don’t tend to mention Jews, but they would probably fit too), races considered “privileged”; therefore, admissions offices artificially inflate admissions numbers for intellectually inferior minorities that are viewed as underprivileged, such as Hispanics and African-Americans, thereby disadvantaging students of “smart” races that deserve to get in (admittedly, this is a bit of a straw man paraphrase).
On August 2, 2017, a New York Times headline read, “Affirmative Action Battle Has a New Focus: Asian-Americans.” The Times reported that the DoJ was looking into the matter of civil rights violations against Asians, and “may well focus on Harvard.” Unfortunately, they were right.
The fight has been led by the President of Students for Fair Admissions, Edward Blum, a conservative activist who graduated from the University of Texas in 1973. He most (in)famously helped spearhead and bankroll the Fisher case, in which he helped applicant Abigail Fisher sue his alma mater after she was rejected (in fact, the man in the picture next to Fisher is not her father, but Mr. Blum).
In the first case, commonly known as Fisher I, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in favor of Ms. Fisher. Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority, wrote: “…strict scrutiny imposes on the university the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.” The problem is that the case never addressed whether Ms. Fisher, or anyone, for that matter, was ever rejected because of their race. There seems to be no evidence that Fisher’s credentials merited entrance to the University of Texas at Austin, even if race was not considered.
Now, Blum is waging a new Crusade against one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, using the Fisher case as a precedent. He started harvardnotfair.com, encouraging rejects to complain anonymously, targeting Asians specifically. This, despite Harvard’s most recent class being really, really disproportionately Asian. In 2014, Blum filed a federal lawsuit against Harvard, but only now does it have a powerful ally—the Trump DoJ.
Like Fisher, many within the Asian community truly believe, to put it crudely, that being black would improve their chances of making it to Harvard. Supporters of the reverse-discrimination theory point to statistics which show that Asian-Americans, on average, must score higher on standardised tests in order to be admitted, whereas African-American and Latino/a students can score lower.
This, of course, ignores the eternally relevant truth uttered by Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
The problem with complaining about the unfairness of university admissions processes is that it assumes that they were completely “fair” to begin with—or that they ever should be. The irony associated with a Republican White House complaining about the unfairness of the Harvard admissions process should not be lost. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, went to Harvard despite the fact that administrators at his school found him to be “less than stellar.” How? His father donated $2.5 million to Harvard.
At selective universities like Harvard, nothing can be for certain. These institutions assess applicants holistically, and regularly reject students with outstanding GPA’s, perfect standardized test scores, and stellar extra-curriculars. In order to be perfectly “fair”, every quantitative measure weighted, but worse, every qualitative measure must be quantified. For better or for worse, activities, passions, leadership, character, letters of recommendation, fitness (as in whether someone “fits” the school), and one’s personal essays all play a role in the process. It is hard enough for admissions officers to put a student’s transcript in the correct context (90% with one teacher could easily be 75% with another), absolute fairness is utterly unfeasable.
Furthermore, even the quantitative aspects of the application, such as GPA and standardized test scores, become mostly insignificant above a certain point. The difference between a 1530 on the SAT and a 1570 is the equivalent of splitting hairs, as both are well within the 99th percentile. The small differences in GPA are even more trivial, as GPA can fluctuate from school to school, from district to district.
However, the question that has been left out of the discussion, which I believe to be of the utmost importance, is whether universities are justified in promoting diversity on campus. The answer to that question is obvious: yes, of course. Diversity is strength. Admissions offices already have a responsibility to their students to create an environment of diversity of interests, talents, experiences, ideology, belief, religion, and geographic origin. Why then, must universities refuse to create an ethnically diverse campus?
At the end of the day, the admissions game is a complicated tournament whose rules few understand thoroughly. There is no guarantee of acceptance. Some of its inequities are certainly unjustified, but perhaps there is a greater virtue at play in its righteous pseudo-discrimination.
And let us face it—if you are a student who would sue a selective institution for rejecting you, then you probably possess the character of someone who deserves to be rejected anyway.