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Harvard admissions case could determine the future of affirmative action

The Trump administration came out against Harvard University's admission practices on Thursday. A legal battle brought by a group of Asian Americans against one of the most selective schools in the world is heading to federal court this fall, and is being widely watched across the country. John Yang talks with Katie Benner of The New York Times about the future of affirmative action in higher ed.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. Department of Justice dived into a battle today over race in college admissions. It's a case heading to federal court this fall centered on admissions at Harvard University. It's one of the most select schools in the world. But it is being widely watched at colleges across the country.

    Today, the Trump administration came out against Harvard's practices.

    And, as John Yang tells us, the outcome could affect the future of affirmative action in higher education.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, previous legal attacks on affirmative action in college admissions focused on whether it discriminated against white students.

    But, today, the Trump administration backed a group of Asian American students who say that Harvard's diversity goals resulted in them being rejected and less qualified applicants of other races being accepted.

    Katie Benner covers the Justice Department for The New York Times, and joins me now.

    Katie, is today's filing in this case, is this an indication that the Trump administration would like to get rid of affirmative action?

  • Katie Benner:

    I think it absolutely can be read this way.

    Keep in mind that today's filing has no legal impact, per se, on the case. It's simply the Justice Department weighing in, in what they call a statement of interest to say that they think that this case has merit.

  • John Yang:

    Is this a new legal strategy, legal attack on affirmative action, saying that it discriminates against — discriminates against racial minorities, rather than against whites?

  • Katie Benner:


    So, first of all, this case was brought by an attorney named Ed Blum. Mr. Blum has bought several affirmative action-related cases. It's clear that he's trying to find plaintiffs who have sympathetic cases who can make an argument that affirmative action policies have in some way harmed their chances for success.

    So he's done this in other cases. What makes Harvard different is that he found plaintiffs who were Asian American, minority students, who say that affirmative action policies, which have long been thought to help minorities, have in this case in fact hurt them, that they're incredibly qualified, and there's no reason that they shouldn't have gotten into Harvard.

    Now, what Harvard would say is that their admissions policy does factor in race, but it factors in many, many, many other things, and that race is not the only determinant.

  • John Yang:

    What specifically are they arguing about Harvard's policies that results in this discrimination, what they say is discrimination against Asian Americans?

  • Katie Benner:


    So they're saying that Harvard is using race, and they want to create — they want to create a percentage of students by race, they want to control the population, the student body pool, and that — so one of the things they're using are these subjective factors.

    It's called the personal test or a personal score. And what the students contend is that Asian Americans are consistently rated lower on that score as a way to artificially suppress their admission to Harvard.

    The plaintiffs in the case point to the fact that Harvard admissions, if you look at the statistics around race, Asian Americans have consistently made up 20 percent of the class for years and years. And they say, how can this be? We should be let in on the basis of merit. And if that were to happen, you would see those numbers change.

    Now, some of the things in the case are actually quite damning for Harvard. There is evidence in the case that shows that admissions professionals at Harvard did say disparaging things about Asian Americans in their personal scores.

    So this is not a clean and clear-cut case of one side being right or wrong. Like all things related to affirmative action, it's incredibly gray. We will see what happens. And it's also very emotionally charged.

  • John Yang:

    If this case where to go to the Supreme Court, of course, there would be — there will be another — a new justice replacing Justice Kennedy. The nominee is Brett Kavanaugh.

    What do we know about Brett Kavanaugh's record on affirmative action?

  • Katie Benner:

    Now, Brett Kavanaugh is an interesting person. He's an interesting figure, because he is known for having a lot of clerks who have been women or who have been people of color. So his own personal record on affirmative action, or at least on race-conscious hiring policy, seems quite strong.

    At the same time, he has made statements in an editorial saying that he felt that soon someday the Supreme Court would view people not through the lens of race, that the Supreme Court would see U.S. citizens as just one race.

    Now, advocates of affirmative action have seen that statement, and they say that it points to the fact that he may not support affirmative action once he hits the Supreme Court, which makes a case like this, which it's hard to imagine won't reach the Supreme Court, extraordinarily important when it comes to the future of affirmative action policies in the United States.

  • John Yang:

    I'm sure we will hear more about that in his confirmation hearings next week.

    Katie Benner of The New York Times, thank you very much.

  • Katie Benner:

    Thank you.

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