BOSTON — Two Harvard faculty members who served in top roles at the school testified Tuesday that they thoroughly reviewed alternatives to considering race in Harvard’s undergraduate admissions process, but concluded that other measures would fail to maintain racial diversity or have unacceptable impacts on the overall quality of students entering the elite university.
Michael Smith, the former dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Rakesh Khurana, the current dean of Harvard College, both detailed their roles in the process Tuesday during the ongoing trial in a federal lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants.
Smith said a three-member panel carefully evaluated 10 different proposals for things Harvard could do or stop doing in a bid to try to keep up minority enrollment without providing what the school calls a “tip” for racial minorities in the admissions process. All the options were lacking, he said.
“We did not find any race-neutral alternative or combination of race-neutral alternatives that provided the same … diversity-related educational benefits,” said Smith, a computer science professor who served as the head of Harvard’s arts and sciences schools from 1997 to earlier this year.
Among the options the school considered: simply dropping race as a factor, more aggressive recruiting a stronger push for geographic diversity, eliminating the early action admissions cycle, and dropping consideration of test scores.
Harvard also considered nixing what its documents described in somewhat vague terms as “other practices that allegedly benefit white applicants” — a reference to preferences for children of alumni, for children of Harvard faculty and staff and for recruited athletes.
“We felt that no race-neutral alternative could substitute for our consideration of race as one consideration among many in our admissions,” Smith said.
Lawyers for SFFA, the group pressing the lawsuit, suggested that the review was either a sham or designed to reach a pre-ordained conclusion. Under questioning by SFFA attorney Adam Mortara, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana acknowledged that the first draft of the panel’s report was written by attorneys in Harvard’s general counsel’s office.
However, under cross-examination by Harvard attorney and former solicitor general Seth Waxman, Smith said having lawyers deeply involved was not unusual. He acknowledged the report was prompted by SFFA’s suit and said the panel needed someone who understood Supreme Court opinions on affirmative action.
“Our Office of General Counsel is just as good as somebody from the staff of the college,” the ex-dean said.
He also said that in meetings at the end of the process: he, Khurana and Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons met to refine and finalize the report without any lawyers or other individuals present.
Smith acknowledged that some of the simulations of race-neutral measures produced roughly the same number of ethnic and racial minorities in the aggregate, but the number of African-American students dropped by as much as 32 percent — from about 14 percent of the class to about 10 percent.
“This felt like a bridge too far,” the former dean said. “We’re going backward from where we are. … There’s already a sense, as these committees have heard, of alienation and isolation interfering with these individuals’ ability to pursue their academic studies on our campus. Those impacts are already felt by individuals here. We’re not looking to make that worse.”
Khurana also expressed a concern that having minority admittees with a dramatically different economic profile than Harvard’s relatively affluent class could lead to stereotyping. “We wouldn’t want students to think that, for example, students of color only come from modest socioeconomic backgrounds,” the dean said.
Mortara suggested that stance was in tension with other efforts Khurana has pressed to make Harvard more open to students with limited financial means. The SFFA attorney asked the dean if he believes Harvard’s policies reinforce privilege.
“I think higher education is part of the solution to addressing issues of inequality and privilege,” Khurana said. “I wish we had a more equal society, though.”
Khurana drew a rare inquiry from U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs after he expressed worries that letting the level of African American students drop to 10 percent ran the risk of creating a “token” experience.
Burroughs, an Obama appointee hearing the case without a jury, asked a short time later what the dean meant. “How do you kind of measure what’s enough?” she asked.
“I don’t think there’s a quantitative number,” Khurana said, adding that there needed to be enough minorities that stereotypes about them would be “broken.”
Smith also rejected SFFA’s contention that Harvard is clinging to its preference for alumni children in order to maintain a flow of donations from their parents. “That is not the reason why we keep our legacy preference,” he said, adding that alumni conduct admissions interviews and remain active in school activities. “All of these things matter, not just financial.”
Smith said the school’s initial efforts to boost financial aid packages over a decade ago helped diversity, but more recent tweaks don’t seem to have helped. “Putting more money into financial aid programs alone is not making change” in who applies, he said.
SFFA also called a former Harvard admissions officer who handles the office’s databases, Elizabeth Yong, to testify that Fitzsimmons and other admissions officials request and receive frequent updates on the demographics of the accepted applicant pool as the process unfolds.
SFFA lawyer Katherine Hacker emphasized that the breakdowns contain data on the number and percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in the pool, but do not list similar data for whites. Harvard’s counsel noted that the compilations include many other demographics, like gender, proposed major, Harvard “lineage,” nationality and geographic distributions.
During her testimony, Yong confirmed that Fitzsimmons was rather agitated in the wake of a 2012 article by Ron Unz accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian-Americans. “Fitz is on a tear about this Asian-American thing,” she wrote in an email to a colleague. Yong seemed eager to bow out of any rebuttal. “I decided to pull the I’m a geek and know nothing about writing,” she wrote in the message.
If SFFA’s lawyers were hoping that Yong, who is Asian-American, had some resentment or deep-seated concern about Harvard’s practices, there was no hint of that in her testimony. Yong said flatly that she had “never” seen any indication of bias or discrimination against Asian-Americans in her decade as an admissions office or the quarter-century she’s spent handling Harvard’s admissions data.
During her testimony, Yong did disclose that it’s common for Harvard admissions officers who attended the school to take a peek at the details of why they got in.
“When I first started working in the admissions office, I looked at my profile, which everyone does,” she said. On the surface, “you wouldn’t see anything that would distinguish me from any other solid applicant,” Yong added.
In the early 1990s, Harvard resisted giving all students access to records containing details on why they were admitted, but the school relented after a ruling from the Education Department that they must be disclosed under federal law.
However, Yong said she believed being Asian-American, attending a Boston high school and coming from parents who never graduated from high school contributed to her admission. “All of those combined, I believe, to help me go to Harvard,” she said.
Testimony in the case is expected to continue Wednesday from minority recruiting leaders for Harvard, followed by one of SFFA’s technical experts. Harvard may being calling witnesses as soon as Friday, likely students who will testify about how they benefited from the school’s diversity.