Harvard is one of the most difficult universities to enter. This year, over 95% of undergraduate applicants were turned down. The decision over admission or rejection is taken on academic grounds, but race enters into the equation as well. This system has a long tradition in the US. Known as ‘affirmative action’, it became famous through the ‘busing’ system introduced in Californian schools in the 1970s intended to create racially-mixed groups of pupils. In higher education, the Obama administration had still called on universities to consider race as a factor in diversifying their campuses, signaling that the administration will champion race-blind admissions standards. As long as ‘affirmative action’ has been applied, critics have accused it of undermining the merit-based logic of admissions.
Traditionally, ‘affirmative action’ was to counter-steer an overrepresentation of white students, thus favouring minorities. The 2018 intake at Harvard shows that this has worked: 52% of undergraduate students are from ethnic minorities (Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian American). But almost half of these are ethnic Asians (who have been doing well in US higher education for quite some time, not just in Harvard). The 23% of students of Asian background compare with a rate of 6% of this group of the US population. In other words, this group is statistically already heavily (over-)represented. Despite of this, a plaintiff in a Boston court now accuses Harvard University of disadvantaging American Asians. How can this be? Critics claim that an admission system based on academic criteria only would have resulted in a still bigger share of American Asians.
To the author’s knowledge, this is the first case where ‘affirmative action’ is being questioned by a minority and not by whites. The lawsuit is likely to make it through the court system and could even end up in the Supreme Court, where the balance has changed in favour of conservative judges with the appointment of Brett Kavanough. President Trump has announced to put an end to gender balancing and to favour race-blind admission. No doubt, this way he hopes to please his main constituency, white voters. But it might well be that the share of Asian Americans will further increase if this happens.