Harvard University's high-stakes affirmative action case heads to federal court

Atour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge Mass. Word of an August 2017 Justice Department inquiry into how race factors into admissions at Harvard University has left top-tier colleges bracing for scrutiny of practices that

A trial began on Monday in a lawsuit alleging Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants, a closely watched case that could influence how USA colleges may use race as a factor in their admissions decisions.

A trial will open here in federal court Monday to weigh accusations that Harvard University's famously competitive undergraduate admissions system is rigged against Asian Americans, a case that could become another landmark in the nation's long debate over affirmative action.

The trial began almost four years after Harvard was sued by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia, that believes schools should not consider race when selecting students.

Harvard believes its campus diversity is at stake and says it couldn't achieve a rich mix of students without considering race.

The plaintiff contends that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans when rating their personal qualities such as leadership and compassion and that every year engineers a precise racial balance of admission offers that gives an unfair edge to less-qualified applicants from other groups.

Even statistics showed Asian-Americans applicants outperformed other racial groups on academic measures, yet that was not necessarily borne out on Harvard's campus, Adam Mortara, a lawyer for SFFA, said in his opening statement on Monday.

"Harvard is systemically saying that Asian candidates are not likeable and don't have good personalities. which is nothing but racist", says Lee Cheng, a lawyer and secretary of the Asian American Legal Foundation, which supports the lawsuit. They allege the admissions process unfairly limits Asian-American applicants to allow other minority groups into the Ivy League institution. The plaintiffs' attorneys say Asian-American males have to score higher on standardized tests to receive a letter than white males, which demonstrates the school is engaging in racial discrimination.

U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs is presiding over the trial and expects to issue a verdict. Yet Mortara argued Monday the lawsuit is not a broader attack on affirmative action, saying Harvard has simply gone too far in its "zeal" to consider race.

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The lawsuit was filed in 2014 and carries implications for many other US colleges that say they consider race to admit a diverse mix of students.

The university also notes that the proportion of students of Asian origin has increased substantially since 2010, and today account for 23 percent of the 2,000 students admitted to the freshman class, compared to 15 percent who are black and 12 percent who are Hispanic, out of 40,000 applicants.

Students for Fair Admissions is led by Edward Blum, a legal strategist who has fought against the use of race at other colleges, including a Supreme Court case in 2016 that upheld policies at the University of Texas. But he said race alone never by itself explains why an applicant is denied admission.

The Justice Department last month launched a similar investigation into whether Yale University also discriminates against Asian-Americans, an allegation it denies.

Supporters of Students for Fair Admissions' lawsuit against Harvard University rally in Copley Square in Boston, Oct. 14.

Bill Lee, the university's lawyer, argued however that "Harvard can not achieve its educational goals without considering race". Eventually, the case could reach the Supreme Court.

That's the question on trial in a Boston federal courtroom this week. Information regarding the specific use of race and ethnicity in Northwestern's admission decisions is not publicly available. Kennedy's replacement, Brett Kavanaugh, could be more likely to vote to bar its use. "So this lawsuit is about ending Harvard's discriminatory practices that are targeting Asian Americans".

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