[guest post by JVW]
A federal judge in Massachusetts on Tuesday upheld Harvard University’s affirmative action admissions process, which considers race as a factor in acceptance decisions.
Judge Allison Burroughs challenged the accusation of the plaintiff, the group Students for Fair Admissions, that the Ivy League institution’s diversity policies intentionally discriminate against Asian-American students, saying the plaintiffs did not provide “a single admissions file that reflected discriminatory animus.”
Dana provided the background on this case four years ago (ah, the speed at which matters wind their way through our legal system). Harvard wants to claim that the admissions process is “holistic” (a favorite word in higher ed admissions speak) and evaluates the student on a variety of factors in which race is but a small part. Yet that approach somehow seems to consistently yield a result where there is a de facto floor on the percentage of black and Hispanic students and therefore as a result a de facto ceiling on the percentage of Asian students. Fancy that. Also, because admitted black students are less likely to enroll at Harvard than kids of other races, the school ends up having to offer admission to a much higher proportion of black applicants in order to ensure they stay at that desired nine percent floor. Never mind the fact that these kids might not exactly be “underserved.”
In her ruling, Judge Burroughs adopted the standard set forth in the Fisher vs. University of Texas decision in which Justice Anthony Kennedy determined that the rather intangible benefits of “diversity” means that having a certain percentage of under-represented minorities is more important than hewing strictly to admissions by merit. Her opinion, found here, declares “It is somewhat axiomatic at this point that diversity of all sorts, including racial diversity, is an important aspect of education.” Of course the wonderful thing about axioms is that by definition they are taken to be true and thus not subject to rigorous analysis, even if some of us heretics find the dedication to diversity to be vastly overrated. The Judge further punishes us with a completely cloying footnote regarding the testimony of Ruth Simmons, born to a share-cropping family and educated at segregated schools until she participated in an exchange program at Wellesley, who then went on to receive a PhD from Harvard and serve as president of Brown University. Left unmentioned is the fact that the standard beneficiary of affirmative action at Harvard today is far more likely to be the black son of a pediatrician and investment banker, or the daughter of a Latino college professor and a white lawyer. There aren’t too many kids from the ghetto or the farms matriculating to Cambridge these days, no matter how much we want to believe that the next Ruth Simmons is showing up on campus each autumn as the leaves begin to change.
But even with that of that, I still generally take Harvard’s side in this matter. As a private school, they ought to be free to choose whomever the hell they want as students, be they the children of well-heeled alumni, star athletes to shore up the various teams, air-headed offspring of vacuous celebrities, or whatever racial and ethnic stew satisfies the oppressive white guilt that burbles in the guts of the administration. But citing the questionable benefits of “diversity” as a justification bothers me, especially in an era when the supposed beneficiaries of diversity seem to be the ones who want to narrow the boundaries for legitimate academic inquiry and debate.
Harvard admission is indeed a zero-sum game, so for every kid that is taken in largely because of the color of her skin or the donor history of his parents, another equally-deserving kid — perhaps more deserving in some cases — is told there is no room in The Yard. Nevertheless, we should let Harvard be Harvard. But if the federal government wants to ask some tough questions as to whether federally-guaranteed student loans ought to be used at schools with racially-biased admissions policies, why then that too is a perfectly legitimate subject for consideration as far as I am concerned.