LAW & EDUCATION
The Harvard Admissions Litigation Revisited
Last year I wrote two articles concerning the on-going litigation instituted by a group called “Students for Fair Admission” against Harvard College. (See the November/December 2018 and the June/July issues of Education Update for information concerning the litigation.). The lawsuit challenges Harvard’s admission procedures and alleges that such procedures discriminate against Asian-Americans. However, the question raises a more critical issue — whether an educational institution receiving any federal funding can utilize affirmative action as part of its admission decision process in order to achieve the type of community which the institution believes is an essential part of its educational mission. In February, final oral arguments were heard and the Court eventually will render a decision. Irrespective of the decision, it is anticipated that the losing party will appeal the decision and, eventually, the issue will be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Christopher Eisgruber, the current President of Princeton, recently commented on the litigation in his February “State of the University” President’s Letter. I so strongly agree with his well-expressed comments that I have determined to devote the balance of this column to extracts from President Eisgruber’s letter which are similar to the principles and beliefs of many of our leading universities.
“When people talk to me about the Harvard case, they sometimes ask me whether I think college admissions should focus more on ‘merit,’ by which they seem to mean test scores, grades, and other numerical indicators. I respond that I am all in favor of ‘merit,’ but I do not think that ‘merit’ is ultimately about winning some sort of test-taking competition. I believe that ‘merit’ means having the intellect, the imagination, the experience, the character, and the grit to benefit from a Princeton education and contribute to the education of your peers, plus the public-spiritedness and the drive to use that education in a way that makes a positive difference in the world after you graduate. Test scores provide some useful evidence, but not the only evidence or the best evidence, of the relevant traits and abilities. At the end of the day, the numbers are imperfect proxies for what really matters.
I wish, as do many others, that as we searched for merit and talent, we no longer had any need to take race into account. When I first encountered the Supreme Court’s initial affirmative action decision, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, as a high school student in the 1970s, I would not have believed that the issue would remain hotly contested more than forty years later. I instead hoped and expected that our country would act quickly and forcefully to eliminate racial inequalities in schooling, in policing, in healthcare, in housing, and in employment. Had America done so, we would not need to consider race today when seeking the talent and perspectives essential to [our] teaching and research mission. But America’s quest for equality remains unfinished, and so we …, like our counterparts at other leading research universities, continue to believe that we can best find the students who will make a difference on our campus and beyond if we consider race as one factor among others in a holistic admission process.
The trade-offs in the admission process are complex and difficult, but this much is straightforward and singularly important: every single student on this campus is here because of merit. All of our students are here because we have made a judgment, on the basis of exceptionally demanding standards, that they have what it takes to succeed at Princeton, to enhance the education of their peers, and to use their education ‘in the nation’s service and the service of humanity’ after they graduate. That is true of our undergraduates and our graduate students. It is true of our athletes, our artists, our legacies, our first-generation students, and our students from every state and every country represented on this campus. They all have the talent needed to benefit from the transformative education made possible by our superb faculty and staff. I am proud of all the students on this campus, and I wish only that we could say ‘yes’ to more applicants from all backgrounds.” #