Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says

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Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says

Johnston Gate at Harvard University. A group suing Harvard says a trove of newly released documents show that admissions officials discriminated against Asian-American applicants.CreditHadley Green for The New York Times

By Anemona Hartocollis

Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records filed Friday by a group representing Asian-American students in a lawsuit against the university.

Asian-Americans scored higher than applicants of any other racial or ethnic group on admissions measures like test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, according to the analysis commissioned by a group that opposes all race-based admissions criteria. But the students’ personal ratings significantly dragged down their chances of being admitted, the analysis found.

The court documents, filed in federal court in Boston, also showed that Harvard conducted an internal investigation into its admissions policies in 2013 and found a bias against Asian-American applicants. But Harvard never made the findings public or acted on them.

Harvard, one of the most sought-after and selective universities in the country, admitted only 4.6 percent of its applicants this year. That has led to intense interest in the university’s closely guarded admissions process. Harvard had fought furiously over the last few months to keep secret the documents that were unsealed Friday.

The documents came out as part of a lawsuit charging Harvard with systematically discriminating against Asian-Americans, in violation of civil rights law. The suit says that Harvard imposes what is in effect a soft quota of “racial balancing.” This keeps the numbers of Asian-Americans artificially low, while advancing less qualified white, black and Hispanic applicants, the plaintiffs contend.

[Read the court documents here and here.]

The findings come at a time when issues of race, ethnicity, admission, testing and equal access to education are confronting schools across the country, from selective public high schools like Stuyvesant High School in New York to elite private colleges. Many Ivy League schools, not just Harvard, have had similar ratios of Asian-American, black, white and Hispanic students for years, despite fluctuations in application rates and qualifications, raising questions about how those numbers are arrived at and whether they represent unspoken quotas.

Harvard and the group suing it have presented sharply divergent views of what constitutes a fair admissions process.

“It turns out that the suspicions of Asian-American alumni, students and applicants were right all along,” the group, Students for Fair Admissions, said in a court document laying out the analysis. “Harvard today engages in the same kind of discrimination and stereotyping that it used to justify quotas on Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Harvard vigorously disagreed on Friday, saying that its own expert analysis showed no discrimination and that seeking diversity is a valuable part of student selection. The university lashed out at the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, Edward Blum, accusing him of using Harvard to replay a previous challenge to affirmative action in college admissions, Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin. In its 2016 decision in that case, the Supreme Court ruled that race could be used as one of many factors in admissions.

“Thorough and comprehensive analysis of the data and evidence makes clear that Harvard College does not discriminate against applicants from any group, including Asian-Americans, whose rate of admission has grown 29 percent over the last decade,” Harvard said in a statement. “Mr. Blum and his organization’s incomplete and misleading data analysis paint a dangerously inaccurate picture of Harvard College’s whole-person admissions process by omitting critical data and information factors.”

[How do you rate a college applicant’s personality traits. Read more here.]

In court papers, Harvard said that a statistical analysis could not capture the many intangible factors that go into Harvard admissions. Harvard said that the plaintiffs’ expert, Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economist, had mined the data to his advantage by taking out applicants who were favored because they were legacies, athletes, the children of staff and the like, including Asian-Americans. In response, the plaintiffs said their expert had factored out these applicants because he wanted to look at the pure effect of race on admissions, unclouded by other factors.

Both sides filed papers Friday asking for summary judgment, an immediate ruling in their favor. If the judge denies those requests, as is likely, a trial has been scheduled for October. If it goes on to the Supreme Court, it could upend decades of affirmative action policies at colleges and universities across the country.

Harvard is not the only Ivy League school facing pressure to admit more Asian-American students. Princeton and Cornell and others also have high numbers of Asian-American applicants. Yet their share of Asian-Americans students is comparable with Harvard’s.

In Friday’s court papers, the plaintiffs describe a shaping process that begins before students even apply, when Harvard buys data about PSAT scores and G.P.A.s, according to the plaintiffs’ motion. It is well documented that these scores vary by race.

The plaintiffs’ analysis was based on data extracted from the records of more than 160,000 applicants who applied for admission over six cycles from 2000 to 2015.

They compare Harvard’s treatment of Asian-Americans with its well-documented campaign to reduce the growing number of Jews being admitted to Harvard in the 1920s. Until then, applicants had been admitted on academic merit. To avoid adopting a blatant quota system, Harvard introduced subjective criteria like character, personality and promise. The plaintiffs call this the “original sin of holistic admissions.”

They argue that the same character-based system is being used now to hold the proportion of Asian-Americans at Harvard to roughly 20 percent year after year, except for minor increases, they say, spurred by litigation.

White applicants would be most hurt if Asian-American admissions rose, the plaintiffs said.

On summary sheets, Asian-American applicants were much more likely than other races to be described as “standard strong,” meaning lacking special qualities that would warrant admission, even though they were more academically qualified, the plaintiffs said. They were 25 percent more likely than white applicants to receive that rating. They were also described as “busy and bright” in their admissions files, the plaintiffs said.

One summary sheet comment said the Asian-American applicant would “need to fight it out with many similar” applicants. The plaintiffs’ papers appeared to offer other examples of grudging or derogatory descriptions of Asian applications, but they had been redacted.

In its admissions process, Harvard scores applicants in five categories — “academic,” “extracurricular,” “athletic,” “personal” and “overall.” They are ranked from 1 to 6, with 1 being the best.

Whites get higher personal ratings than Asian-Americans, with 21.3 percent of white applicants getting a 1 or 2 compared to 17.6 percent of Asian-Americans, according to the plaintiffs’ analysis.

Alumni interviewers give Asian-Americans personal ratings comparable to those of whites. But the admissions office gives them the worst scores of any racial group, often without even meeting them, according to Professor Arcidiacono.

Harvard said that while admissions officers may not meet the applicants, they can judge their personal qualities based on factors like personal essays and letters of recommendation.

Harvard said it was implausible that Harvard’s 40-member admissions committee, some of whom were Asian-Americans, would conclude that Asian-American applicants were less personable than other races.

University officials did concede that its 2013 internal review found that if Harvard considered only academic achievement, the Asian-American share of the class would rise to 43 percent from the actual 19 percent. After accounting for Harvard’s preference for recruited athletes and legacy applicants, the proportion of whites went up, while the share of Asian-Americans fell to 31 percent. Accounting for extracurricular and personal ratings, the share of whites rose again, and Asian-Americans fell to 26 percent.

What brought the Asian-American number down to roughly 18 percent, or about the actual share, was accounting for a category called “demographic,” the study found. This pushed up African-American and Hispanic numbers, while reducing whites and Asian-Americans. The plaintiffs said this meant there was a penalty for being Asian-American.

“Further details (especially around the personal rating) may provide further insight,” Harvard’s internal report said.

But, the plaintiffs said in their motion Friday, there was no further insight, because, “Harvard killed the study and quietly buried the reports.”

Harvard said that the review was discounted because it was preliminary and incomplete.

At the end of the admissions process, the class of applicants is fine-tuned through a so-called “lop list,” which includes race. Almost the entire page in which the plaintiffs describe that fine-tuning has been blacked out. Mr. Blum, the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, said Friday that it was “disreputable” of Harvard to complain that information was being taken out of context while at the same time insisting on significant redactions of the evidence.

In a heavily redacted section, the plaintiffs describe how Harvard and 15 other elite schools share notes about the race of admitted students at a meeting of the Association of Black Admissions and Financial Aid Officers of the Ivy League and Sister Schools every year. The court papers portray them as a sort of secret society of admissions officers exchanging information about race, a sensitive aspect of admissions.

Harvard’s class of 2021 is 14.6 percent African-American, 22.2 percent Asian-American, 11.6 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Native-American or Pacific Islander, according to Harvard’s website.


In Internal Reports, Harvard Concluded Asian Americans Suffer ‘Negative Effects’ in Admissions Process


Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid
The Harvard College Office of Admissions and Financial Aid located at 86 Brattle Street. 

Harvard’s internal research office concluded the College’s admissions policies produce “negative effects” for Asian Americans in a series of confidential reports circulated among top administrators in 2013, according to court documents filed early Friday morning in an ongoing lawsuit against the University.

In the reports, which were never made public, Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research also concluded the College’s admissions process advantages legacy students and athletes more than it does low-income students. Robert Iuliano, Harvard’s general counsel, requested the OIR review around late 2012 partly in response to allegations made by Harvard alumnus Ron K. Unz ’83 that Harvard displayed “an anti-Asian admissions bias,” according to court filings posted by advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, which is suing Harvard.

Between Dec. 29, 2012 and Feb. 12, 2013, members of OIR and the Admissions Office exchanged over 100 emails as the office gathered information on the College’s admissions procedures, according to court filings.

Both Harvard and SFFAprovided accounts of the institutional review—as well as hundreds of pages of other information related to Harvard’s admissions process—in court filings over the course of the day Friday. The University and SFFA filed the documents as part of SFFA’s ongoing lawsuit alleging Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process.

SFFA pointed to the OIR reports as evidence supporting its discrimination charges—charges Harvard has repeatedly denied. Edward Blum, president of SFFA, wrote in an emailed statement that “today’s court filing exposes the startling magnitude of Harvard’s discrimination against Asian applicants.”

In its own filings, Harvard strongly contested SFFA’s version of events and called the internal review inconclusive and incomplete.

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“SFFA will point to documents prepared by individuals in Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research, which in SFFA’s view suggest that Asian-American applicants were disadvantaged in the admissions process,” Harvard lawyers wrote. “But the analysis in those documents was not designed to evaluate whether Harvard was intentionally discriminating and reached no such conclusion.”

The lawyers further wrote the OIR analysis was “incomplete, preliminary, and based on limited inputs.” The analysis did not control for unspecified vital information Harvard uses to evaluate applicants, the lawyers wrote. Models that account for the “full range of observable information” considered during Harvard’s admissions process show “no negative effect” for Asian Americans during the admissions process, the lawyers noted.

In one 2013 report, OIR concluded that “Asian high achievers have lower rates of admission.” The office’s analyses formed part of broader study modeling the roles various factors—including gender and socioeconomic status—play in the College’s admissions procedures.

High-up Harvard administrators reviewed the OIR findings, according to court filings. On separate occasions, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, and senior members of the Admissions Office all examined the reports.

But the report itself argues against sharing its findings with the public.

“We imagine that sharing any analysis of admission weights will draw attention to the variety of factors that compete with one another in the admission process,” one of the OIR reports reads.“While we find that low income students clearly receive a ‘tip’ in the admissions process, our descriptive analysis and regression models also shows that the tip for legacies and athletes is larger and that there are demographic groups that have negative effects.”

The only demographic group which saw “negative effects” were Asian Americans, according to the OIR analyses.

Following a period of information gathering in late 2012 and early 2013, OIR wrote a report titled “Admissions and Financial at Harvard College.” In addition to examining issues of gender and early action admissions, the report was specifically meant to address the question: “Does the admissions process disadvantage Asians?”

Using 10 years of admissions demographic data and logistic regression models, OIR created a model that estimated the probability of admission for individuals based on certain characteristics.

This model included estimated demographic breakdowns of classes admitted given different weighting of various characteristics used to evaluate applicants. One of the breakdowns considered the demographics of a class that would be admitted if Harvard judged only by rankings and ratings of academics success.

Under this scenario, “the percentage of Asians would more than double to 43 percent,” according to SFFA’s Friday filings. SFFA’s document alleges representatives from OIR met with Fitzsimmons to present its findings and that Fitzsimmons took little—if any—further action to address the report.

“Following this presentation, Dean Fitzsimmons did not request any additional work from OIR into whether Asian-American applicants were being disadvantaged in response to the February 2013 Report,” the document states. “Dean Fitzsimmons did not share or discuss the February 2013 Report with anyone else in the Admissions Office or any senior leaders outside the Admissions Office.”

In early 2013, following the first report, OIR produced a second document titled “Admissions Part II” which specifically focused on differences in admission rates between Asian American and white applicants. The report solely compared admissions rates for “non-legacy, non-athlete” students.

The report found that Asian American applicants performed significantly better in rankings of test scores, academics, and overall scores from alumni interviews. Of 10 characteristics, white students performed significantly better in only one—rankings of personal qualities, which are assigned by the Admissions Office.

The report also found that, for students with comparable academic rankings or SAT scores, white students were generally admitted at higher rates than were Asian American students. The second report was also presented to Fitzsimmons and also spurred little further action, according to the SFFA filings.

A third OIR report—commissioned to gauge how low-income students fare in the admissions process—found a slight negative association between being Asian American and earning a spot at the College.

Ten days after taking office as Dean of the College on July 1, 2014, Rakesh Khurana met with four representatives from the OIR to discuss the three reports, according to the filings.

In previous court testimony reported in the filings, Khurana and other top Harvard officials questioned the validity of the OIR findings.

Khurana recalled thinking about “a lot of limitations to what are called fitted models like this” that led him to believe the analysis was not “done appropriately,” according to court testimony. SFFA filings state Khurana “took no steps to find out why OIR prepared these reports” nor did he “determine how the analysis could be done more ‘appropriately’” or pursue further investigation into the OIR’s findings.

Faust similarly questioned the legitimacy of the OIR reports in court testimony, testifying the documents were “preliminary, for discussion.”

“So I would say this is an exercise,” Faust testified. “I would not give it more credibility than being an exercise.”

Current and former OIR employees who completed analysis for the reports gave widely varying recollections of their involvement in the department’s work during court testimony.

Erin Driver-Linn and Erica Bever, who worked on the reports, said they recalled very little about their involvement producing the reviews “despite numerous emails and drafts documenting” their participation in the process, according to filings.

Bever did not recall ever completing such analysis and drew “a complete blank on this particular topic,” while Driver-Linn said she did not know whether the OIR was asked to complete such an investigation. However, each criticized the validity of the reports’ conclusions, with Bever stating they “oversimplified” Harvard admissions and Driver-Linn calling them “reductive.”

But one former Harvard employee, Mark Hansen, said he recalled working on the OIR’s investigation into potential racial bias and said he believes the reports comprise “evidence that Asians are disadvantaged in the admissions process at Harvard.”

Fitzsimmons recalled “how incomplete the analysis was” because it lacked certain data from the admissions office, according to his testimony. He asserted that Harvard “would always be vigilant about any suggestion of discrimination against any person” and confirmed that he believed his decision to neither discuss the conclusions of these reports with others in his office nor follow up with the OIR was consistent with this stance.

—This is a developing story. Check for more updates.

Does Affirmative Action Hurt Asian Americans?

Published on Feb 14, 2018

The Department of Justice is currently investigating admissions policies at Harvard to see whether they discriminate against Asian-Americans.

The Asian-American Coalition for Education is arguing that affirmative action hurts Asian students' chance at getting into Ivy League schools. We spoke with the head of that coalition, a student who feels being Asian hurt his college application, and an NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer to try and settle the debate.


哈佛内部报告首度公开 自陈招生录取对亚裔不公


据哈佛学生校报Crimson报导,状告哈佛的“学生公平入学”(Students for Fair Admissions) 组织指出,这份OIR报告是支持歧视亚裔指控的证据。SFFA主席Edward Blum在声明中写到,今天的法庭文件揭露了哈佛对亚裔申请学生歧视的惊人程度。


2012年曾有哈佛毕业生Ron K. Unz指责哈佛招生不公“反亚裔”,因而该校OIR进行内部调查后总结“亚裔表现优异学生的入学率更低”,且亚裔是在种族项目内唯一有负面影响的群体,而该调查还发现哈佛招生政策对传承生和体育生比对低收入学生更有利。


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