As SFFA v. Harvard nears conclusion, lawsuit gives insight into affirmative action policies on university campus

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 11:04pm

Julie J. Park, associate professor of Education at the University of Maryland, presents a lecture at the Research & Scholarship Seminar Series: Affirmative Action, Asian Americans, and the Harvard Case at Rackham Auditorium Wednesday afternoon.

Julie J. Park, associate professor of Education at the University of Maryland, presents a lecture at the Research & Scholarship Seminar Series: Affirmative Action, Asian Americans, and the Harvard Case at Rackham Auditorium Wednesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Kartikeya Sundaram

On Wednesday afternoon, around 100 students gathered in Rackham auditorium to listen to Julie Park, associate professor at the University of Maryland and author of “Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data,” discuss the implications behind Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the lawsuit against Harvard University to determine if the college violated the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Asian Americans through their college admissions process. Park was the consulting expert for the trial, serving as defense for Harvard.  

Her talk comes amidst recent controversy surrounding the college admissions bribery scandals in schools like University of Southern California, Georgetown University, Yale University and Stanford University.  

The talk was part of a larger seminar series by the National Center for Institutional Diversity, aiming to invite scholars who promote academic understanding of both historical and contemporary issues about race, oppression, power and how they occur on campus.

Park’s choice to come to the University of Michigan was in part driven by her personal connection to it. She explained that she was inspired by the early 2000s University of Michigan lawsuits and decided to pursue what is now her current academic path. Her research on the relationship between affirmative action and Asian Americans works to question and debunk the myths surrounding Asian Americans through statistical data.

“We need to think about how we fit into this broader landscape, what our stories are and how they might be used or exploited by other if we don’t take ownership of our own stories,” Park said.

She began by referencing one of the earlier college admissions lawsuits: the second Abigail Fisher case. In 2016, Abigail Fisher was one of the plaintiffs challenging University of Texas in a case investigating admissions discrimination based on skin color.  

After the first Fisher case, Edward Blum, president of SFFA and the man leading the initiative to eliminate all race-conscious admissions, developed a website called harvardnotfair.org. After four failed cases where the plaintiffs were all white with B-average grades, the anti-affirmative action movement changed their strategic course to focus on Asian Americans with exceptional grades.

According to Park, Asian Americans make more sympathetic plaintiffs than white students with mediocre grades.

“There were a lot of Black and Latinx applicants with better grades who didn’t get in,” Park said.

For the wider population who did not understand how nuanced highly selective admissions can be, it is easy to paint a picture of unfair admissions.

“It made sense to recruit them,” Park said. “They are a community vulnerable to exploitation and misinformation around selective college admissions because college admissions in Asia are so different.”

This is apparent in California’s SCA 5 in 2014 — an effort to repeal a ban on affirmative action.  When the proposition was blocked by recent Chinese immigrants who organized against it, misinformation blew up on multiple media platforms.

“There were information trending on social media that said UCs were capping the number of Asian Americans; the scope of the misinformation was huge and people were unfortunately believing it,” Park said.

Engineering senior Josephine Sulimin explained to The Daily after the event her fears of being identified as Asian through her applications. According to Sulimin, myths around Asian American admissions impacted her college applications themselves.

“A lot of people are told not to look too Asian on their resume,” Sulimin said. “I grew up believing that I’m going to be disadvantaged for who I am.”

Engineering Sophomore Halla Kabat said she felt encouraged to put herself as white when applying to colleges, even though her mother is Asian.

“My moms asian and my dads white,” Kabat said. “My mom always encouraged me to put my race as white because it would increase my chances of getting in.”

Race-based quotas are considered unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, race is seen as a “factor of a factor of a factor,” For example, an admissions counselor can not consider the application simply based on the race box the applicant checked off, but can consider it if it related to a racial or cultural organization the applicant partakes in.

Park argued selective colleges are selective for a reason, and their admissions go beyond test scores and GPA.

Lawsuits like Fisher v. UT or SFFA v. Harvard have the potential to change the way affirmative action works in college campuses across the nation, including the University of Michigan. According to Park, if race-conscious admissions ends, her research suggests that the Black student body population would decrease by half and the Latinx population would drop by one-third, while the white population would significantly increase.

Though SFFA v. Harvard is still yet to be resolved, the court thus far has stated SFFA had an evidence problem and Harvard had a personal rating problem.

Despite SFFA’s claim their plaintiffs had good enough scores and applications to receive admission, they did not submit any scores or applications. The personal rating controversy is a more complicated one, however. At Harvard, a personal rating is a score assigned to applications based on anything that is non academic and non extra-curricular. It includes, among other things, the applicant’s interview, recommendations and essays. The trial revealed Asians scoring significantly lower than their white counterparts.

Park’s answer to this was that there are academic biases which disproportionately affect other groups as well. There are disparities such as test prep, donations and educational opportunities. Such biases are left out of the conversation.  

Park concluded her talk by emphasizing the need for race conscious action in admissions.

“We are all relatively better off if we are in a system that takes into account those dynamics of power and privilege that are related to race and social class,” Park said. “Race matters, not just because of people encountering discrimination, but because it is part of the beauty and the light that they bring to a diverse student body that our student benefit so much from.”

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