In the Face of Unsettling Truths

Chris Sun, Contributor

The Harvard admissions trial has shed light on some troubling facts that must be addressed.

This October, Lawrence Bacow was inaugurated as the 29th President of Harvard University. In his inaugural address, President Bacow, quoting the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, urged, “We must always seek the truth in our opponent’s errors, and the errors in our own truth.” Less than two months later, whether Harvard under President Bacow’s leadership will adhere to this maxim has been put to the test as a result of the Students for Fair Admissions (“SFFA”) v. Harvard trial.

The trial has been framed by many in our community and in the media as an attack on affirmative action and diversity itself. A quick Google search will yield countless articles referring the case as the “Harvard Affirmative Action Trial.” Many organizations and groups in our community have been quick to rally around Harvard, passionately defending the value of diversity that is purportedly at stake. Five courageous undergraduates took the stand and submitted themselves to the crucible of cross-examination to attest to the transformative power of a diverse community.

Yet, the passionate outcry has—at best, unintentionally, and at worst, willfully—ignored a critical point. At the heart of the case are two distinct issues: (i) allegations that Harvard has “disadvantaged” Asian-Americans in the admissions process, and (ii) whether race-conscious affirmative action is an effective social policy. It is entirely compatible to both fervently defend affirmative action and advocate for maintaining diversity as a policy, while simultaneously acknowledging and calling for an investigation into troubling findings that have been surfaced by the lawsuit. In contrast to the vocal, passionate support defenders of affirmative action have received, those members of our community rightfully troubled by the findings in this case have heard nothing but a deafening silence.

To ignore the unsettling questions that have been raised by the lawsuit (perhaps fearing that any questions will weaken affirmative action as a policy) is morally unjustifiable. As a community, should we not have the courage to investigate claims of intentional or unintentional discrimination? In Neibuhr’s words, should we not seek to uncover whether there are any “truths” in SFFA’s claims, and whether there are any “errors” in Harvard’s “truths”?

There are several facts—incontrovertible and not disputed by either side—about the conduct of the Harvard Admissions Office that we as a community must directly confront. They are as follows:

  1.     In 2013, Harvard’s internal Office of Institutional Research (“OIR”) put together several documents and memorandums highlighting potentially concerning statistics around the admissions rate of Asian-Americans. One slide that was ultimately shared with Dean Fitzsimmons has an agenda item “Does the process disadvantage Asians?” In a subsequent memo addressed to Dean Fitzsimmons, OIR includes the table below and warns, “ While we find that low income students clearly receive a ‘tip’ in the admissions process, our descriptive analysis and regression models also show that the tip for legacies and athletes is larger and that there are demographic groups that have negative effects.” The only demographic group with a negative effect is Asians, as highlighted below. Both SFFA and Harvard agree that no further action was taken to investigate the “negative effects” highlighted in the memo. 
  2.     Harvard’s Admissions Office sends out recruiting emails to students in 20 states deemed “sparse country” in order to increase the representation of these regions on campus. Whether a student in sparse country receives a letter from Harvard or not depends on his or her PSAT score. However, the PSAT cut-off score for receiving a letter differs by race. African-American and Latino students received a letter if they scored above 1,100 out of a possible 1,600. White applicants must score 1,310 or higher. Asian women must score 1,350 to receive a letter. And Asian men had to receive 1,380 or higher. That is to say, two students living in the same town, attending the same high school, based on nothing else but their ethnicity, needed to meet different thresholds to receive a recruitment letter from Harvard. 
  3.     The Harvard OIR report includes a graph showing that Asian-Americans scored lower on personality than white applicants, and subsequent analysis by SFFA found that Asian-Americans had the lowest personality score of any ethnic group. The below chart by OIR shows that Asian-American applicants scored favorably compared to white applicants on the Academic Index and Extracurricular Index, while alumni ratings, teacher recommendation ratings, and guidance counselor ratings were comparable to that of white applicants. However, the “Personal Rating” assigned by the Admissions Office by admissions officers who have never met with the applicant resulted in Asian-Americans being assigned significantly lower Personal Ratings compared to applicants of other ethnicities.

Harvard argues that for SFFA to “win” its case, SFFA must prove “discriminatory intent”—a steep legal hurdle that is difficult to prove. However, it is entirely conceivable that Harvard’s Admissions Office did not have an intent to discriminate against Asian-Americans, but nonetheless allowed implicit biases and stereotypes of Asian-Americans to disparately impact the admissions process. As members of the Harvard community, our standards of conduct should not be determined by what is legal—we must strive for what is just.

For much of the trial, SFFA and Harvard engaged in a “he-said, she-said” argument about whether Dean Fitzsimmons, and other senior members of Harvard’s administration, were aware of the OIR report and other claims of disadvantages against Asian-American applicants. In Dean Khurana’s testimony, he states that he would have “rung multiple alarm bells” if he felt “there was any intentional discrimination.”

With sincere respect, President Bacow, Senior Harvard Corporation Fellow William Lee, Dean Khurana, Dean Fitzsimmons: regardless of who knew what over the past few years, today all the OIR reports and memos have been publicly disclosed, and the sounds of those tolling alarm bells fill the air. What you, and what our community does next—whether we seek to ignore and sweep up these “unsettling truths,” or confront them head-on to sincerely assess if any modicum of truth exists—will be judged by history and have a lasting impact on Harvard’s legacy.

Chris Sun (HBS ’19) is from New Jersey and is a fan of politics and winter-sports. Before HBS, he was an investor at American Securities, a private equity firm based New York City. He also has experience in Investment Banking at J.P. Morgan.