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Shirley Leung

Harvard ruling is a defiant defense of affirmative action in higher education

Harvard University gate entrance. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

In upholding Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy, federal Judge Allison Burroughs issued what can be read as a defiant ruling to the forces that have been trying to undermine affirmative action in higher education.

“In 2003, the Supreme Court articulated its expectation that in twenty-five years, it would not be necessary to use racial preferences to achieve a diverse student body,” Burroughs wrote. “As time marches on and the effects of entrenched racism and unequal opportunity remain obvious, this goal might be optimistic and may need to change.”

In other words, America isn’t ready to roll back affirmative action. We have a long way to go.


Still, Burroughs makes clear she supports the use of race as a “narrowly tailored plan” to achieve a diverse student body. That means race is used as a “plus factor” to tip an applicant’s chance; it’s not the driving reason for acceptance.

While the case against Harvard University has been closely watched as a test for affirmative action, it may also have been the worst possible place to prove discrimination in the college admissions process. Think about it. The world’s greatest university can be really picky. For the Class of 2019, the school admitted only 2,000 applicants out of about 35,000 — of which more than 8,000 had perfect GPAs.

Burroughs sums it up this way:

“The Court notes that Harvard’s current admissions policy does not result in under-qualified students being admitted in the name of diversity — rather, the tip given for race impacts who among the highly-qualified students in the applicant pool will be selected for admission to a class that is too small to accommodate more than a small percentage of those qualified for admission.”

The other hole in the case brought by Ed Blum — who spearheaded the lawsuit alleging Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants — is that he didn’t trot out any aggrieved Asian-American applicants during the three-week trial. (Blum, by the way, is white.)


Burroughs made sure to point out that glaring omission to Blum, whose group is known as Students for Fair Admissions:

“Finally, SFFA did not present a single Asian American applicant who was overtly discriminated against or who was better qualified than an admitted white applicant when considering the full range of factors that Harvard values in its admissions process.”

If anything, Asian-Americans have gravitated to Harvard. African-Americans and Hispanics account for only 20 percent of domestic applicants to Harvard each year, even though they make up more than 30 percent of the US population. Asian-American students have represented about 22 percent of total applicants, even though they make up less than 6 percent of the US population.

So did we learn anything about the Harvard admissions process?

We learned, while legal, the school’s process as Burroughs writes is “not perfect.” What we’ll remember from the trial is how admissions officers rated Asian-American applicants lower on personality compared to other racial groups. We learned that some of those lower ratings were influenced by teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, and that society at large is to blame.

Burroughs did not find that Asian-Americans were being stereotyped as “quiet” or “flat” more so than other applicants, but she must worry, which explains why she called for more implicit bias trainings for Harvard admissions officers, clearer guidelines for use of race in the admissions process, and monitoring any race-related disparities in the rating process.


Ultimately, Burroughs sided with Harvard because she believed that only diversity at our colleges and universities can set us free from our circuitous debate on affirmative action.

“The students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs and talents,” she wrote. “It is this, at Harvard and elsewhere that will move us, one day, to the point where we see that race is a fact, but not the defining fact and not the fact that tells us what is important, but we are not there yet.”

Until then, affirmative action must live on.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.