Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants in order to illegally limit how many it admits, a lawyer for a group suing the school said on Monday at the start of a closely watched trial.
The trial in federal court in Boston pits the Ivy League school against Students for Fair Admissions, whose 2014 lawsuit challenges the use of race as a factor in college admissions decisions.
The lawsuit, backed by the Trump administration, could eventually reach the Supreme Court, giving the newly cemented five-member conservative majority a chance to bar the use of affirmative action to help minority applicants get into college.
Conservatives have long argued that affirmative action, which aims to offset historic patterns of racial discrimination, hurts white people and Asian-Americans, who outperform other minority groups on academic measures.
SFFA, which is headed by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, claims Harvard illegally engages in “racial balancing” that artificially limits the number of Asian-American students at the elite school.
Even statistics showed Asian-Americans applicants outperformed other racial groups on academic measures, yet that was not necessarily borne out on Harvard’s campus, Adam Mortara, a lawyer for SFFA, said in his opening statement on Monday.
Harvard pushes down the scores Asian-Americans receive on “personal” rating that measures an applicant’s subjective likability, grit and positivity and improperly allows race to play a factor in those scores, Mortara said.
“There’s no other possible explanation,” he said.
But William Lee, a lawyer for Harvard, told U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs, who is presiding over the non-jury trial, that SFFA’s claims were based on heavily manipulated data and “invective accusations and innuendo.”
He said that in order to promote diversity, Harvard does consider race as one factor among many, as the U.S. Supreme Court has long permitted. But he said race alone never by itself explains why an applicant is denied admission.
“Harvard never considers an applicant’s race to be negative,” Lee said. “If it considers race at all, it is always considered in a positive way.”
Asian-Americans, who represent about 6 percent of the U.S. population, comprise 23 percent of Harvard’s current freshman class.
The U.S. Justice Department, which launched a related probe of Harvard after Republican President Donald Trump took office last year, has backed SFFA’s case, saying that Harvard has not seriously considered alternative, race-neutral approaches to admissions.
The Justice Department last month launched a similar investigation into whether Yale University also discriminates against Asian-Americans, an allegation it denies.