A recent ruling in a discrimination case against Harvard University may have larger implications for the American college admissions process, experts and students said.
Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit representing a group of Asian American students rejected from Harvard, filed a lawsuit against the university in 2014 claiming Harvard used affirmative action to discriminate against Asian American students.
SFFA argued the university was setting restrictive quotes that limited the number of Asian American students it accepted. However, Harvard denied the claims.
A federal judge ruled against SFFA on Tuesday. In her ruling, Judge Allison Burroughs said that while the college admissions process is imperfect, it still follows precedent in using race in admissions.
California’s public universities, including the University of California and California State Universities, have been prohibited from considering race as a factor in the admissions process since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996.
In the short term, college institutions that consider race in their admissions processes, including Harvard, do not have to change their policies, said Mitchell Chang, an education professor at UCLA.
However, the decision has symbolic significance in that it shows the justice system continues to support the use of race in admissions in a limited matter, he said.
Although he said he doesn’t think the ruling will impact California universities, Chang said they could learn from the case.
“For California, even though we don’t apply race, or consider race in admitting students, (the lesson to be learned here) is that we still have to keep that in mind and make sure that we’re not unintentionally using it to result in a kind of this negative impact on Asian American applicants,” he said.
Lee Cheng, the secretary of the Asian American Legal Foundation, disagreed with the ruling against SFFA. He said he thought when race is permitted to be used, it typically is used to favor a particular group. He added this currently places a burden on Asian American students.
“When you permit this broad use and unfettered use of these unmalleable categories and classifications, then they’re very easily abused,” he said. “And I think there have been many instances where I think there have been a lot of unintended, extremely negative consequences.”
However, Cheng said the discussion surrounding wealth in the admissions process was the most important issue that arose from the case.
“It really exposed who was benefiting from the current admissions process,” Cheng said. “Harvard claims they need subjectivity in order to help poor black people, which (makes no sense). Poor black people are not benefiting very much from Harvard’s admissions programs, nor are poor Hispanic people, but who is suffering? Absolutely, it’s poor and middle-class Asian kids.”
Even if the judge had ruled against Harvard, Cheng said he didn’t think the case would have had a broader impact on affirmative action.
“A ruling against Harvard couldn’t have hurt affirmative action,” Cheng said. “For one thing, Harvard would just find some other way to hide discrimination and do what it will to do whatever it wants. It’s rich enough.”
Aidan Arasasingham, government relations committee chair for the UC Student Association and a third-year global studies student, said he agreed with the ruling. He added although he thought the case itself was frivolous, he thought the trial brought up important issues.
He said it showed that while Harvard does not discriminate based on race, it does discriminate based on wealth, especially when it preferentially admits legacy students and the children of donors or prospective donors.
“(The trial) really shows how prevalent wealth and inequity still remains in higher education,” he said.
Arasasingham added he hopes the questions the case raised about legacy admissions, athletic admissions and preferential treatment for families of donors will continue to be discussed.
“I think the questions around those admissions practices shouldn’t go away now that the case is wrapping up,” he said.