Why Harvard University Has A Problem
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
The Boston Globe recently reported (11/25/2018) that Harvard University was being sued by a group of Asian Americans named “Students for Fair Admissions” (SFA). This group claims that Asian American applicants are experiencing discrimination in Harvard’s admissions selection process.
In this case, SFA alleges that two factors, culture and leadership, are subjectively evaluated, and unduly penalize Asian Americans, who are perceived as having weaker personal attributes in these areas. The Asian Americans argue that they are viewed as being more culturally “passive,” and that their collectivist Asian culture does not produce a bevy of aggressive, emergent leaders. As a result, they suffer in the admissions process.
At the core of this issue is a concept called “race-based admissions,” which sounds discriminatory on its very surface. In fact, with the blessing of the Supreme Court, colleges and universities may admit members of protected classes at higher rates to create a learning environment that is more culturally “rich” for students and faculty alike.
From a human resources perspective, this approach seems to contradict the very notion of Affirmative Action (AA), created by Executive Order 11246 in 1965. The focus at that time was the recruitment of African Americans in the workplace and in educational institutions. Eventually, the effort spread to the recruitment of other minority employees and students.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) oversaw employers’ painful effort to understand and adapt to Affirmative Action law as they implemented its principles during the 1960’s, 70’s and ‘80’s. The emphasis upon African American selection created the misperception in the minds of the public that Affirmative Action was intended not only to be fair to African Americans, but preferential as well.
The goal in fact was not to give preferential treatment to African Americans, but to “act affirmatively” when two job candidates, one from the majority group and one from a minority group, were equally qualified for a job opportunity. This meant hiring the minority candidate in the spirit of Affirmative Action. It also required that employers must show evidence of active outreach to attract minority job candidates to their organization. Since this aggressive outreach was not utilized for the majority, it is easy to understand why the hiring of African Americans was seen as based upon something other than true merit.
In the SFA case, it sounds like an institution (i.e. Harvard) allegedly drew conclusions about a large group of people (i.e. Asian Americans). And we have a label for that - “stereotyping.” It means that people are deemed to have consistent characteristics across the population, rather than a unique set of individual traits. This is germane to the SFA’s case and allegation.
For historical reference and comparison, Jennifer Gratz was a high school student in Michigan whose young life’s goal was admission to the University of Michigan. Her qualifications seemed to ensure that her goal would be fulfilled. However, she was not accepted. In the Gratz case (vs. Bollinger and the University of Michigan) in 2003, she discovered that the University credited 20 points for “race” in their weighted admissions evaluation process. This had the effect of ruling minority candidates “in.”
Thirty-eight years after the arrival of Affirmative Action, the University of Michigan probably still thought that its policy reflected its good intentions to boost the interests and presence of minority students. But in fact, their strategy was an anachronistic artifact of an earlier age. In 2003 human resource practitioners knew that an organization should not give preferential treatment to minority candidates. It should provide “equal opportunity.”
The Supreme Court ruled that the University of Michigan’s practice was indeed discriminatory. However, the Supreme Court did suggest that race may be used as a factor in the University’s Graduate School, to create a “culturally rich” program and community. This Supreme Court decision gave rise to what we now know as “race-based admissions.”
In another case in which the Supreme Court supported race-based admissions, Abigail Fisher (Fisher I and II vs. University of Texas, 2013) made a similar allegation to that of Gratz. Both Fisher and Supreme Court Justice Thomas argued that the University of Texas’ policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This Clause provides that "(no State” [...] should deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
But, in the end, the race-based concept was upheld.
Implications for the Harvard Case
Interestingly, unlike the efforts of employers to satisfy the goals of Affirmative Action policy and law to rule minority candidates “in,” the allegedly discriminatory Harvard admissions process rules Asian American candidates “out.” This allegation results when Plaintiffs (in any case) conclude that the rate of exclusion of members of a protected class is so great that it cannot be due to chance alone.
From a human resources perspective, the alleged method used by Harvard to block Asian American applicants, if true, produces an outcome known as “Adverse Impact.” In this concept, organizations unintentionally discriminate against people because of the characteristics of the system or process. For example, a “family friendly” hiring policy may unintentionally result in the perpetuation of employees who are from the majority, if the work force is not racially mixed.
There is no reason to believe that Harvard intends to discriminate. But the allegation is that it does, and that it has a disproportionate impact upon Asian Americans.
In Part Two in our examination of this topic, we will focus upon Harvard’s need for minority students in both its Graduate Schools and its Undergraduate Programs (Boston Globe, 3/2019). This will demonstrate how the alleged impact of its Admissions Policy upon the Asian American community seems to contradict the University’s need for greater minority representation at both program levels.
We will also discuss the future of Affirmative Action.
In our last blog, we described the nature of the accusation by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and its Admission Policy, and how they allege it discriminated against them. We also described the underlying issues and concepts relevant to Affirmative Action and their relationship to this case. In this blog we will address other related concepts and offer a view of the competing positions on the admissions process.
(Note: As we were planning to post a two part blog to our web site, some extraordinary events occurred: 1) the Boston Globe (3/2/2019) published an article about Harvard University and the state of its Graduate Programs, relative to the issue of diversity levels for protected classes, and 2) a massive fraudulent college admissions scheme was announced by the FBI that resulted in the prosecution of people across the nation, including some familiar names in Entertainment. As a result, this has become a three part series.)
So what are the “numbers”? Regarding the first event above, The Boston Globe reported that Harvard University has had difficulty attracting minority students to its graduate programs. The Globe’s data show that:
• 5% of students in the Business School were African American, about the same as in 2008 (Note: African Americans are about 10 -15% of the U. S. population in any given year.)
• Hispanic students made up 4% of the Kennedy School of Government, down 2% from 2008 (Similarly, Hispanics represent close to 30% of the U. S. population.)
• The percentage of Caucasian students increased from 2008
• At the Law School 10% of students are Asian American, 6% are black, and 5% are Hispanic
• “Foreign students” as a category make up 12% of undergraduates, but are one third to one half of the population of five Graduate Schools.
(By contrast, at the University of Massachusetts Boston, in the 2018 Freshman class of 2,315 non-transfer students, 113 foreign countries are represented. If only one student came from each country, this level would be about 5%. However, it is likely to be much greater. UMB has a high rate of transfer students from other schools. (Source: UMB website))
• African Americans make up 10% of the Education School, more than their representation in the undergraduate school
• According to the Harvard website, 12.8% of 2018 admissions are International students.
Achieving Multiple AAP Goals
If it seems that Affirmative Action Programs and legal compliance are difficult to manage, we agree. The original goal of Affirmative Action, namely, the employment and admission of African Americans, has expanded to include other minority groups. This is good and should be the Nation’s goal. But this “balancing act” has become much more challenging. This is evident in the SFA case. Today, meeting a goal for one minority group doesn’t mean that the goal for other groups is met.
Even while preparing this blog, we discovered arguments on both sides of several core questions about Affirmative Action. For example:
• Should “race-based admissions” be the guiding policy and strategy? Or should admissions policies be “color blind”?
• Should we strive to minimize or eliminate any favoritism toward people of color to meet AA goals? Or do we drive harder toward admissions that are based only upon qualifications?
• If the latter is true, what should the qualifications be? And, if interviews with college Admissions Counselors are permitted to assess an applicant’s character, how can we possibly avoid the influence of race? And what about the bias potential that lurks in the background of personal encounters?
• Given that AA is now about more than the recruitment of African Americans, what should the goal by race or ethnicity be? What about gender? Should the admissions goal for each group mimic their representation in our society?
So how is Harvard doing now?
The good news is that Harvard has had a successful recruiting year. Approximately 15.2% of the incoming Freshman class consists of African Americans, according to Harvard’s web site. Even better, Asian Americans represent 22.9% of the incoming class.
Please note that the reporting of Harvard’s Admissions data is presented in various ways by various sources. One such profile is presented in a survey of students’ self-perceptions at www.features.thecrimson.com/2018.
PART THREE: THE DECISION
In Parts One and Two of this blog series we promised to share concepts for improving college admissions processes. This was the main issue at the heart of the lawsuit filed by Students for Asian Admissions.
In summary, they claimed that their race and ethnicity were underrepresented in Harvard’s admissions process. We promised to post the legal decision if it occurred during the Summer or Fall. This decision was made earlier this year (2021) by a Judge in Boston. The Judge awarded the decision to Harvard. She described Harvard’s process as being “nondiscriminatory, but not perfect.”
This latter comment comes as no surprise, given our description of the issue relative to related anti-discrimination laws. Identifying blatant discrimination in cases such as this seems more complex than ever.
In Parts One and Two of this blog series we saw that managing a non-discriminatory admissions policy is clearly a challenge. It is not simply about accepting qualified applicants, but the “right” applicants. Many special interest groups and monitors of the process fairness are watching closely.
What Are the Options?
In this final series segment, we discuss several innovative ways to improve college admissions decisions. They may or may not be what you personally prefer, but they are offered here as alternatives.
Rebecca Kantar is the founder of Imbellus, Inc., a startup in Los Angeles that aims to reinvent testing for college admissions. In this process, Imbellus Inc. challenges the very notion of what students are expected to learn.
Imbellus’ objection to current and common pre-college testing (SAT, ACT, etc.) is that these tests are biased toward those who can acquire higher quality education and tutoring, resulting in a significant advantage. Also, some claim that these tests only predict performance for the first year of college.
Kantar wants to disrupt this long-held approach and test for skills that she believes are more important for education and the workplace. These skills include decision making, adaptability and critical thinking. She utilizes digital, game-based tests that are unique to each test taker.
But the road to acceptance has been difficult. Kantar was rejected by “something like 50” venture capital firms, according to an anonymous source familiar with her proposal. She faced resistance when she urged academic institutions to run her game-based simulation testing parallel to conventional pre-admissions testing, such as SAT scores. She has also been criticized because of her apparent dislike for teaching traditional academic skills and topics such as Math, History, and Biology. Her response is that students will still receive that education, but she wants to “reconnect K-12 education with the world of work and the reality of being an adult.”
The investment of time and money has been huge and has met with limited acceptance.
The Posse Foundation
The Posse Foundation uses a unique approach for determining a student’s potential for college admission. The organization works with the student toward his or her admission goal with cooperating universities. From January to August of their senior year in high school, newly selected Scholars meet weekly with Posse peers and staff for two-hour workshops that address four developmental and achievement areas:
Team building and group support
Leadership and becoming an “active agent of change”
It’s hard to argue with these improvement goals for students pursuing a college education. But like Imbellus’ approach, the Posse Foundation has not gained national acceptance.
What Do We Believe?
Put us in the camp of striving for color-blind admissions, with an emphasis upon achievements. We have prepared some suggested criteria for applicant evaluation. They are not perfect, but we believe that they move closer to the goal.
High School Achievement
A four-year test of the applicant’s knowledge, skills, competencies, abilities, character, and experience. No other method uses a comparable period of evaluation.
Use standardized final grades, adjusting for different GPA systems. Students are global. There must be a method to make comparisons.
Consider special achievements, awards, rewards, contributions, and recognition. The quality of each award should be evaluated and weighted. This sets students apart from their peers.
Consider character references.
Determine a “cut line” for Admissions. Example: Top 20%. This should be set at a level that ensures that the School achieves its admissions goal
Add applicants based upon the following qualifications:
SAT OR ACT tests (optional), or a relevant test for the educational objective (e.g. IEEE)
Writing Skills, as evidenced by an Essay and Portfolio:
1. Must be Notarized as authentic: reviewed blindly.
2. Must be compared to a Student Portfolio of writing, submitted and Notarized as authentic.
3. No interviewee would be accepted whose qualifications do not fall within a
defined “cut” of the applicant database. This is an “adder” and does not guarantee admission based upon the favorability of the interview. Some will be interviewed, many will not.
Special skills important to the University - These may be sports, or unique academic skills or aptitude, such as musical ability.
A weighted application form for all evaluated elements
Recommendations (3) of others as to the character of the candidate.
A weighted value for the quality of the applicant’s High School. This can be reviewed and changed each year as needed to account for a School’s improvements or decline. Includes domestic and international schools.
We respectfully offer the following recommendations to Harvard to alleviate the current discord amongst the parties:
1. Remove the factors of “Culture” and “Leadership” from the Admissions Process. If Leadership is retained, it must be based upon an objective set of standards, such as having won a pre-established Leadership Award, open to all.
2. In Trait Based Theories of Leadership, the hypothesis is that personal traits can serve as predictors of leadership excellence. However, as researchers discovered, there are over 400 traits associated with leadership excellence, and many of those are not visible to observers (i.e. such as to Admissions Representatives). “Looking at someone” therefore does not determine their leadership potential. This doesn’t bode well for the personal interview.
3. Harvard University is one of the greatest leadership development institutions in the world. If a candidate’s leadership skills are viewed as deficient at the time of the application, otherwise qualified Asian students would probably argue that this is precisely why they should be admitted: to become better leaders.
4. Use a “blind” admissions process in which the applicant and his/her racial identity is unknown. Adhere to the results. This would exclude the applicant’s race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, and High School. Blind admissions policies are criticized by some people, but greatly reduce bias.
The argument against blind admissions is that becoming “race blind” is not a smart objective. Critics say that It fails to support the objectives of Affirmative Action Programs to select people of color and from various cultures for admission to colleges and universities and to U.S. workplaces. This diversity creates a “rich” cultural experience that even the Supreme Court has ruled is acceptable.
The subject of Affirmative Action is on the short list of topics that can result in a “bar fight.” It seems that there are three positions about Affirmative Action:
1. It has been a failure, and therefore we should get rid of it.
2. It has been a success, and therefore we should get rid of it.
3. It is working well, and therefore we should keep it.
As one can see from this article, for College Admissions Counselors, choosing students for college admissions continues to be a difficult process to create and explain, especially to those who were rejected. And now, we discover that the admissions process, as alleged by admission candidates, may not be fair, as alleged, at some of the most elite schools. For this reason and others, it is worth creating a method that minimizes subjectivity and unintentional discrimination to the greatest possible extent.
Our position is that universities and business organizations should continue to seek out and admit or hire employees and students from protected classes. But a color-blind admissions process ensures that the “playing field” is more level for all.
We just don’t want the base paths to be tilted toward foul territory.
We welcome your own views about the challenges of the admissions process.
(Note: We will continue to monitor this case and report back at some time in the future, as it moves through the Appeals process.)
Sources: Material in this article was drawn from Bloomberg Business News (2020) and research from Organizational Behavior text books.
This blog is based upon the content of the article “For Harvard, a Complex Path to High Court” (Boston Globe, 11/25/18).
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