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Harvard’s Affirmative Action Case and The Case for Diversity in Higher Education

July 27, 2018

Regina Fairfax

Communications Intern and Harvard Class of 2020

On June 12, 2018, then President of Harvard College Drew Faust sent an email to Harvard students titled ‘Defending Diversity.’ In it, Faust outlined how a lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) was moving forward in the courts and media. SFFA, along with 60 Asian-American organizations, claims that Harvard’s affirmative action practices discriminate against Asian-American applicants. Through this lawsuit, SFFA seeks to dismantle and gut the affirmative action practices that Harvard uses to achieve a diverse academic setting.

The same organization has brought identical lawsuits with white plaintiffs. In the 2012 Fisher V. University of Texas case, a University of Texas applicant with average grades and test scores claimed that she had been denied admission because she was white. The Harvard lawsuit continues SFFA’s attempt to accomplish what they have previously failed to do: reverse affirmative action. SFFA’s stance on affirmative action echoes that of the Trump Administration, which recently abolished the Obama-era guidelines on using race as a factor to increase diversity on college campuses.

A quick look at the makeup of the Harvard freshman Class of 2021shows it is 49.1% white, the first time in history that it was majority non-white. The second largest ethnic group is Asian-American, composing 22.2% of the overall class. More than 70% of the class is filled by the two groups that SFFA and the current lawsuit claim are discriminated against. Instead of focusing on research suggesting implicit racial bias against Asian-American applicants on subjective traits, SFFA argues that affirmative action is the reason that, despite their academic achievement, white and Asian-American applicants are being denied admission. This recycled argument had been ineffective in SFFA’s unilateral fight for white applicants, so they expanded it to the second largest ethnic group in U.S. higher education, Asian-Americans.

Universities could fill their class two times over with students who have performed near-perfect on standardized tests and grades, but it would be a drastically different academic landscape. Any educational or psychological expert can tell you that standardized tests are biased against minority students, particularly African-Americans and Latinos. Likewise, any college admissions officer can tell you that high school GPAs cannot be compared at face-value, because each school evaluates its students and weighs its GPAs differently.

Yet all this is beside the point, because one cannot lose a spot at a university never given in the first place. Harvard does not have cutoff test scores, nor do they have test scores that will guarantee admission. Like most schools, there is no single aspect of an application that will ensure that one will be admitted, nor a quota for the number of students to any racial group that they will accept. Why? Harvard knows that no one measures provides a conclusive picture of a student’s potential or fit. Harvard wants a student body with a variety of talents, backgrounds, experiences, ideas, and perspectives that will come together to interact and share knowledge. That is a diverse learning environment; and considering one could not achieve this with a racially homogenous group of students, racial diversity is a key component

I have learned just as much being the single African-American student in my otherwise all-white classrooms at Harvard as I have chatting in the d-hall surrounded by peers and friends. They come from the varying socio-economic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, political parties, countries, and races that make up our world. I could not tell you anything about their GPAs or SATs. But I can tell you about their passions, projects, ambitions, perspectives, and the conversations that challenge how I think and expanded my sense of the world. This critical yet intangible way of learning is only accomplished through diversity. It is not only worth investing in — but defending.

Education is powerful; so powerful that it provides the tools and knowledge to repair the systematic injustices of discrimination and exclusion. Education breaks down barriers and gives new voices a seat at the table. All students benefit from racial diversity, through exposure to new ideas and perspectives that extend beyond the classroom. Affirmative action practices are not used to keep certain racial groups out of college, but to allow a greater diversity within. When an admissions committee considers race as a factor, it acknowledges history and diversity, and uses it to provide a learning environment that challenges and pushes students to be great.

This is a time in our nation’s history when it is paramount to stand up for the values that one believes in. Reversing affirmative action would only satisfy SFFA’s crusade to favor white students while undermining diversity. The belief that succeeding on tests and pandering one’s resume will guarantee admission to a top-ranked college is an outdated approach to higher education. To “make America great,” our nation will only be great if we move forward towards justice and equality and do not repeat the mistakes of the past

As a Harvard student, I am proud that my university stands up for diversity, fights back against those who threaten it, and supports a learning environment where students from all backgrounds can continue to dream of, strive for, and create a future for everyone.

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