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Could Harvard discrimination case change college admissions nationwide?

The Harvard admissions trial in Boston concluded Friday and it could have implications for affirmative action nationwide. The case alleges that qualified Asian-American applicants were denied admission because Harvard used other, non-academic measures to keep their numbers down. William Brangham discusses the case with Kirk Carapezza from WGBH as part of our special look at “rethinking college.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A major legal case about college admissions wrapped up today in Boston. It concerns whether Harvard, one of the most selective schools in the world, is unfairly discriminating against Asian-American applicants.

    But, as William Brangham reports, many believe the case could also have implications for affirmative action nationwide.

    It is part of our ongoing look at ways of Rethinking College.

  • William Brangham:

    The case alleges that highly qualified Asian-American applicants are being denied admission because Harvard is using other non-academic measures to intentionally keep their numbers down.

    This trial has certainly shed some unflattering light on the inner workings of Harvard's admissions process, but it's also worrying many supporters of affirmative action.

    That's because the case is being shepherded by a man named Edward Blum. He's a well-known conservative legal activist who's twice before brought major cases to eliminate affirmative action in education.

    For more on this case, I'm joined now by Kirk Carapezza. He's an education reporter at our sister station WGBH in Boston. And he's been following this very closely.

    Kirk, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Kirk Carapezza:

    Good to be here.

  • William Brangham:

    The group representing these Asian-American students allege that Harvard is intentionally discriminating against them.

    Can you tell us a little bit more? What is their argument?

  • Kirk Carapezza:

    The group argues that Harvard is systematically rating these students lower on personal scores.

    In their closing arguments today, the plaintiffs' lawyers said Harvard is stereotyping Asian-Americans, describing them as quiet, math- or science-oriented, book-smart. They are accusing them of racial balancing, which the Supreme Court has ruled is illegal. You can't use quotas in college admission.

  • William Brangham:

    And so they're basically arguing that if you took those racial considerations out of it, that these highly qualified students would be getting into Harvard at higher rates than they are now, is that right?

  • Kirk Carapezza:

    That's right.

    This group, Edward — led by Edward Blum, this conservative legal strategist, hired an economist, Duke economist, Peter Arcidiacono. He looked at six years of Harvard's admissions database and he found that Asian-American are being discriminated against.

    He also found that African-Americans and Hispanics are much more likely to be admitted if you do not consider the personal scores. He referred to that as racial preferences.

  • William Brangham:

    And as I mentioned in the introduction, that the trial has shed some somewhat unsavory light on the inner workings of Harvard's admissions process.

    Can you tell us a little bit about what was discovered?

  • Kirk Carapezza:

    Right.

    This case, this trial lasted three weeks. And what struck me most was just how complicated the process is and how many layers there are and how many factors Harvard says it considers when deciding which students to admit and which students not to admit.

    This case shed some light on the legacy preferences, tipping the scales a bit for students, the sons and daughters of alumni, people who give money to Harvard.

    I think, from a P.R. perspective, Harvard, of course, didn't wish ITS process was being, you know, splashed across the newspapers here. But I think it's also been eye-opening for a lot of people to see how much careful consideration they take when deciding which students to admit.

  • William Brangham:

    And what was Harvard's rebuttal to this? They're obviously being accused day in and day out of racial bias. What's been their — the overarching thrust of their defense?

  • Kirk Carapezza:

    Right.

    Harvard points to the data and system the data speaks for themselves. Harvard says Asian-American now make up about 22 percent of admitted students. That compares to 6 percent of the U.S. population. Harvard is saying that they want to build a diverse class, that when they're educating future leaders, they want to make sure there is a lot of diversity on campus, so people are experiencing people from different backgrounds.

    And so they point to the Bakke decision in 1978, where the Supreme Court pointed to Harvard as the model in higher education for considering race, and race can be one factor among many factors when deciding which students to admit.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that this case hasn't been — that affirmative action itself is not — quote, unquote — "in the docket."

    But, as I mentioned, Edward Blum is this man who has brought many cases that very overtly try to chip away at affirmative action in education.

    Let's just say that he wins this case. What is your sense about what the impact on affirmative action more broadly could be?

  • Kirk Carapezza:

    A lot of people in higher ed, a lot of leaders I speak to think this is a backdoor attack on the consideration of race in admissions.

    I spoke with one leader this week, and she told me that this case goes to the heart of who we are as a society. And it's basically we're debating the latitudes that our institutions of higher education can use when building a class.

    The case — the trial ended today. The judge is expected to make a ruling early next year. Whoever loses, they're expected to appeal this case. And many legal experts think it could ultimately reach the Supreme Court.

    And with Justice Kavanaugh on the court now and the court leaning more conservative, a lot of people are worried that this could mark the end of affirmative action.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Kirk Carapezza of WGBH News, thank you very much.

  • Kirk Carapezza:

    Thank you.

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