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The Harvard admission trial puts the school's dirty secrets on display

Updated 11:07 AM ET, Sat October 20, 2018

(CNN) - As a trial over alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans in Harvard admissions finishes its first week, one thing has become clear: there are ways to win a place at the Ivy League campus that fields a surplus of applicants with perfect grades and test scores.

Family wealth and connections to the school; athletic superiority; and an African-American or Latino background all significantly enhance an applicant's chances. In some instances, students whose families pledged over millions of dollars to fund a building or endow professorships got an advantage, emails show.

But then coming from a household with an income of less than $60,000 or having a migrant parent can also provide a boost. And while gender does not make a difference, knowing Latin and Greek and showing an interest in the humanities might catch an admission officer's eye.

Those various factors may be self-evident, but testimony in the Boston courtroom of US District Judge Allison Burroughs this week has offered a rare and detailed view into the secretive screening process at a university that receives 40,000 applications annually and finishes with a freshman class of 1,660 students.

The case, continuing on Friday and expected to run through the end of the month, was brought by conservative activists who created a group named Students for Fair Admissions and who argue that Harvard disfavors high-achieving Asian-Americans and gives a boost to African-American, Hispanic and other traditional beneficiaries of affirmative action.

Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons was on the stand for four days, providing on Thursday perhaps his most robust defense of the week to assertions that Harvard is biased against Asian-American applicants.

Under questioning from Harvard's lawyer, Fitzsimmons said there are "never" quotas on Asian-Americans, "never" floors for the number of black or Hispanic students, and no attempts to ensure consistent numbers of admissions among racial groups.

"We certainly do everything in our power to treat every applicant completely and fairly," said Fitzsimmons, who joined the office 46 years ago and has been admissions dean since 1986.

Referring to the evolution in screening for diversity over the decades, Fitzsimmons said Harvard has become "a profoundly better place -- just in terms of what the students learn from each other, what the faculty and those of us who work at Harvard learn from the astonishingly diverse classes we have today."

The trial has drawn overflow crowds and intense media attention, yet both sides, as well as Judge Burroughs, have said they expect the dispute and future of racial affirmative action to be settled at the Supreme Court. Any such ruling from the nine justices is at least a year away, and with the bench becoming increasingly conservative, including in this month's addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the odds of a decision for the challengers are rising.

The case was engineered by activist Edward Blum, who in the past has used white plaintiffs to challenge racial policies, and whose overall goal is to win reversal of a 1978 Supreme Court decision that first endorsed the use race in admissions to ensure campus diversity. Students for Fair Admissions, now backed by the Trump administration, filed the case under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination at private institutions that receive federal funds.

Benefits of big-donor legacies

Lawyers for the challengers have elicited testimony about practices that they argue appear to diminish the chances for Asian-Americans, particularly with the use of an open-ended "personal" trait category on which Asian-Americans score disproportionately low compared to their academic and extracurricular category rating.

They have also shone a light on age-old preferences for the children of wealthy donors and legacy students.

"[I]s admitting the children and relatives of large donors important to you and others at Harvard?" SFFA lawyer John Hughes asked Fitzsimmons after he acknowledged maintaining a dean's list of the children of big donors who apply.

"It is important for the long-term strength of the institution that we have the resources ... we need to, among other things, provide scholarships," Fitzsimmons said, "but also for all the other purposes at the university."

One email that Fitzsimmons received in June 2013 from the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School dubbed him "my hero" and expressing gratitude for the admission of the children of significant donors.

"Once again you have done wonders. I am simply thrilled about all the folks you were able to admit," then-Dean David Ellwood wrote, noting that the family had promised to pay for a building.

In another email introduced at the trial, a former tennis coach in 2014 thanked Fitzsimmons for meeting with a student whose family has donated money to finance "two full professorships" and given $1.1 million over four years. Fitzsimmons responded that the student was being considered for a "likely" letter, which the dean said, "is given when we have an applicant who is being pressured by another institution to commit to that institution."

Test scores, Greek and money

Fitzsimmons testified that Harvard, in its quest for broader diversity, takes steps to boost the chances of African-Americans and Latino students, beginning with recruitment letters when their standardized test scores are in a middle range, rather than at higher ranges as required for white and Asian-American high schoolers to receive recruitment letters.

He said the decision is based partly on economic assumptions. "It really comes down to the economic disadvantage associated ... with both of those ethnic groups," Fitzsimmons said at one point, referring to blacks and Hispanics. "These are students who have less of an opportunity, on average at least, to prepare well and to do well on standardized testing because of the lack of opportunity often in their schools and their communities.

In a similar vein, Fitzsimmons said, Harvard sometimes looks for hardship in parent occupations. "I think there's a huge benefit," he said under questioning from Harvard lawyer William Lee, "because I think, again, you bring with you to Harvard your life experience. And your life experience has been shaped often quite profoundly by your parents and your family situation."

"For example," he said, "let's say you were the son or daughter of a migrant worker. It's one thing to talk about migrant workers and immigration in the abstract, for example. It's another thing to live with someone for four years [as an undergraduate on campus] who has lived that experience."

Addressing a different kind of diversity, Fitzsimmons referred to students who had studied Latin and Greek and might pursue the classics at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus.

"One of the things we're always interested in doing is getting more humanists to come to Harvard," he said. "Unfortunately, if you look at the College Board reports every year, there seems almost every year there are fewer and fewer students who want to do anything like the humanities in college. And we think we've got a great humanities program, and we teach over 80 languages."

Judge Burroughs let the testimony of the week unfold with few questions. She interjected, however, as Fitzsimmons maintained that "tips" that favor applicants, for example of wealthy alumni, "come into play only at a high level of merit."

"But didn't we see a chart earlier that said that there's a big chunk of athletes and of legacies that wouldn't get in but for that tip?" Burroughs asked.

Answered Fitzsimmons, "There are some who needed a tip to get in. That's true. But if you look at it in any sort of a national sense, they're all very, very competitive ... . Our applicant pool, you saw the 8,000 people with perfect grades and so on that you saw. It's quite a rarified pool in the end."

Asian-American applicants

As Hughes and fellow SFFA lawyer Adam Mortara introduced admissions data patterns during the week, Fitzsimmons acknowledged that the legacy "tip," or plus factor, does not, on the whole, help Asian-Americans. Data in exhibits introduced by the challengers also showed that as Harvard screeners consider demographic and personal factors beyond academics, the chances for Asian-American applicants drop significantly.

The category that hurts Asian-Americans most, the challengers insist, covers "personal" traits, from "likeability" to leadership. Harvard said information for that category is drawn from a variety of sources including teachers and guidance counselors.

In his opening statement on Monday, Mortara asserted that Asian-Americans do "shockingly ... poorly" compared to blacks and that the personal-trait category appears open to manipulation by admissions officers seeking certain percentages of racial minorities.

When personal traits and other demographic factors are added to the mix for African-American applicants, their chances for admission rise significantly, Fitzsimmons testified.

The percentage of Asian-American students admitted to Harvard has been steadily increasing, and for the most recently admitted class of 2022 reached about 23%. African-Americans were at about 15% and Latinos at 12%. A category of mainly white students accounts for 50%.

Looking back over his nearly half century in admissions, Fitzsimmons testified, "When I first started in admissions there were almost no Asian-Americans. We were only up to about 5% by the early '80s, and now it's 22.7%."

He testified that he had never observed any bias against Asian-American applicants, and when asked specifically about "personal" ratings that SFFA lawyers say can reflect stereotypes about Asian-Americans, Fitzsimmons maintained that there is no discrimination there.

Rather, he said, the ratings arise from "a process of having readers look at the evidence in the application, and really looking at everything in that application. ... There are so many different checks and balances on this."


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