Janet Yellen sides with Harvard in admissions bias case

Janet Yellen became the most high-profile economist to defend Harvard’s position in a lawsuit over admission practices.
Janet Yellen became the most high-profile economist to defend Harvard’s position in a lawsuit over admission practices.Melanie Maxwell/The Ann Arbor News via Associated Press/File

Janet Yellen, the former chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, allied herself with Harvard University on Wednesday, becoming the most high-profile economist to defend the Ivy League school’s position that it does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

Yellen, the first woman to run the US central bank, joined a roster of economists who have filed documents in the federal court case supporting the analysis done for Harvard by fellow economist David Card. Yellen and her husband, Nobel Prize economist George Akerlof, in court documents both defended Card’s analysis of Harvard’s admission data that found no discrimination.

Yellen’s decision to weigh in on the case puts her at odds with the Trump administration, which last week argued that Harvard’s admission process “may be infected with racial bias.”


In their filings, Yellen and Akerlof called Card “outstanding” and said that his “statistical analyses in this case were methodologically sound and that the criticisms of his modeling approach ... are not based on sound statistical principles or practices.”

Yellen, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Yellen ended her four-year term as Federal Reserve chairwoman in January. She was an Obama appointee and her term was not renewed by President Trump.

Yellen, who helped steer the economy through the recent recovery, has been fairly low-key since leaving the central bank. It is unclear why she decided take a position on the affirmative action case against Harvard.

However, both Yellen and Akerlof taught at the University of California Berkeley, where Card is also a professor.

The case has drawn interest and attention from economists, academics, conservative and liberal groups, and the US Department of Justice and could dismantle decades-long affirmative action policies in higher education.

Students for Fair Admissions, a group representing Asian-American applicants, brought the lawsuit against Harvard. The group has backed earlier unsuccessful efforts to end affirmative action in college admissions involving white students.


In this case, Students for Fair Admissions claims that Harvard limits the number of Asian-American students it admits. Harvard’s reliance on personal traits — such as kindness, leadership, and courage — in evaluating applicants also hurts Asian-American students, who often receive lower scores from admissions officers than other applicants, the group argues.

The case is scheduled for trial in October in Boston, but will likely be decided in the coming years by the Supreme Court.

Last week, the Justice Department said in court filings that Harvard had failed to show that its use of race in admissions decisions is narrowly tailored as required by law.

Much of the case relies on a review of six years of Harvard’s admissions information by dueling experts who differ in how they analyzed the data. Peter Arcidiacono, an economics professor at Duke University, who examined the data for Students for Fair Admissions, concluded that Asian-American students were disadvantaged by Harvard’s process.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.