Ziyi Mai

Ziyi Mai is a graduate student studying economics.

Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill face lawsuits due to their race-based admission schemes. According to Inside Higher Ed, a group of interested parties including two unnamed college students filed the lawsuits to ask the federal courts to ban Harvard and UNC-CH from considering race in their admission process. The Harvard applicant is identified as an Asian-American who had strong academic backgrounds: a perfect ACT score, two 800s on SAT II subject exams and was valedictorian of his high school. Harvard still rejected him. 

The two lawsuits can be seen as a continuous battle following Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case that reached the Supreme Court last year aiming to restrict affirmative action. The high court’s decision was to send it back to a federal appeals court for further review, citing that the “U.S. Court of Appeal in Fifth Circuit had erred in not applying strict scrutiny (a very high standard) when it reviewed the university’s defense of its admissions practices.”

The lawsuit against Harvard claims that what Harvard calls a holistic approach for admission, which considers a wide range of criteria, is actually a disguise for racial discrimination, placing a quota on Asian-American students over the past two decades. Harvard’s admission policy is, in fact, holding higher standards for people of Asian ethnicity and lets them compete with one another. The lawsuit also uses the stability of racial demographics at Harvard during the past several years as evidence. 

Though the lawsuit seems to fight affirmative action, it entirely lacks reasoning in the first place. Harvard University is a private educational institute that does not take public money as major funding source. Getting into Harvard requires applicants to meet some commonly agreed upon criteria, but they should realize that meeting those criteria, such as test scores and perfect GPAs, does not guarantee admission. Many colleges specify a variety of admission requirements but none of them openly says applicants will be admitted if they meet some or all of the requirements. The right of admission should be entirely reserved to colleges themselves, especially private colleges. 

The Harvard applicant, who is part of the plaintiff party, thought he is excellent enough that no college should reject him. If one did, it must be factors, such as race, that reach beyond his ability. With this way of thinking, he tried to take over the roles of Harvard’s admission committee, dictating what students they should admit. A perfect analogy to this is that a person trespasses someone else’s private property and insists that he did nothing wrong because he had no intention to harm the owner, without noticing the trespassing private property itself is illegal.

I do not intend to take any stand on affirmative action, nor do I lecture colleges to conduct some specific admission requirements. I defend the rights reserved to colleges in terms of determining their own admission criteria and preferences.

Some colleges may see race as one of the important components to a healthy student body such as Harvard’s, making effort to balance racial demographics. Some others do not perceive race as important but would have other criteria. The California Institute of Technology, an elite college that does not consider race in admission, has seen significant growth of Asian-Americans from representing 20 percent of undergraduates in the 1990s to 40 percent in 2013. Colleges such as Harvard may have the ideal that different colors of skin should have the same right to access higher education. They tend to reserve some resources to other minority groups that might not be as competitive as Asians and whites in terms of academic standards. 

All these preferences embedded in their admission criteria should leave to colleges themselves to decide. Even if the court orders to scrap the race considerations, colleges still find other means to achieve what they initially want. For example, UNC-CH usually admits top students from counties that have fewer education resources than big cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte, though students from those counties are typically less competitive than those in cities. This kind of discrimination might not be as bad as many people think, as it affords those less competitive students the opportunities more privileged students have.