Kayana Szymczak / The New York Times

Demonstrators protest perceived anti-Asian discrimination in Harvard University's admissions policies in Boston, Oct. 14, 2018.

October 10, 2019

Court Rules for Harvard in Affirmative Action Case, Cornellians React

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On Tuesday Oct. 1, Judge Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard’s position in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College lawsuit, a ruling which has allowed Cornell’s Admission Officers to breathe easy for now.

In a brief submitted in July 2018, 16 universities, including Cornell, endorsed Harvard’s argument that removing race from the admissions process would compromise their “efforts to attain diverse student bodies.”

Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment, stated: “The judge’s final decision in the SFFA v. Harvard case … reaffirms the compelling educational benefits associated with student diversity in higher education — on our campus and in our classrooms” while re-emphasizing Cornell’s commitment to “recruiting, admitting and enrolling academically talented and diverse freshman and transfer classes each year.”

Although this ruling holds no immediate effect on Cornell’s admissions policy, Burdick has stated that “Cornell will continue to annually evaluate the results and success of its undergraduate admissions program.”

Students for Fair Admissions, lead by Edward Blum, cited Harvard’s consistently low rating of Asian American applicants on their “personal score” as evidence of discrimination on the basis of race. In Harvard’s admissions process, qualities relevant to a high “personal” rating include “integrity, helpfulness, … leadership ability, maturity.”

SFFA accused Harvard of “racial balancing”, alleging that Harvard’s admissions program used the personal scores to restrict the number of Asian-American students admitted by scoring them lower. Consequently, the lawsuit brings affirmative action under question.

“I think that this case has the potential to create a rift in the conversation of inclusion on campus by differentiating those who have benefited from affirmative action and those who have not,” said Alexis Fintland ’22.

Harvard has come under close scrutiny as a result of the lawsuit, as has SFFA and its founder Edward Blum. Prof. Derek Chang, Asian American studies commented, “he [Blum] is quite cynically using Asian Americans to … dismantle affirmative action.”

Chang noted that Blum was ignoring “the ways in which that policy, in fact, might benefit Asian Americans.”

In her ruling, Judge Allison Burroughs of the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts determined that the use of race in Harvard’s admissions program did not constitute a violation of the Civil Rights Act.

She did, however, acknowledge that there was a difference in personal ratings, but found that the disparity “reflects neither intentional discrimination against Asian American applicants nor a process that was insufficiently tailored to avoid the potential for unintended discrimination.”

“While Judge Burroughs may have noted that the admissions process at Harvard is “not perfect, she also noted that there is ‘no evidence of any racial animus whatsoever,” said Chang, who was “pleased by the federal court’s decision.”

Youhan Yuan ’20, member of the Cornell International Affairs Society, was more critical of the Judge’s ruling.

“The problem is the admission officers in Harvard were using racial stereotypes in these ranking systems that discriminated [against] Asian Americans” Yuan said in reference to the disproportionately lower rankings of Asian Americans on factors like kindness and likability.

Moriah Adeghe ’21, vice president for finance and minority liaison of the Student Assembly, agreed with the ruling since she also felt that achieving diversity was an important tenet of affirmative action.

“I think Harvard’s point … is that if competitive colleges were not to look at race, the racial composition of those schools would be very homogenous due to many societal factors that marginalize racial and ethnic minorities,” Adeghe said.

She added that elevating minority students was one of the positive attributes of affirmative action.

“I think that affirmative action is very important at a place like Cornell, where we pride ourselves on ‘any person, any study,” Adeghe said. “A lot of good comes out of elevating minority students who may have not been able to go to a selective university, or university at all.”

This was a sentiment echoed by Fintland — also a member of the Cuban American Student Association.

“I see it [affirmative action] more as a temporary setback to some groups that is necessary to equalize the admissions process as a whole,” Fintland said.

Although Yuan supports affirmative action, he expressed concerns about the implications of the ruling: “I believe without solid judge disapproval on the previous [Harvard’s] policy … this kind of invisible discriminatory policy will still [continue to] exist.”