This spring, a think-tank scholar named Edward Blum put up a series of websites: harvardnotfair.org, uncnotfair.org, and uwnotfair.org. What was “not fair” about those schools was their admission policies, Blum felt: Harvard in particular was discriminating against Asian students, to the benefit of students that were white, black, Hispanic, or members of other racial or ethnic groups.
“We have data that suggests that 55 percent of kids with SAT scores of 2300 or higher are Asian,” Blum, of the nonprofit Project on Fair Representation and conservative American Enterprise Institute, told me. But at Harvard, the proportion of Asian students accepted hovers between 17 and 21 percent, year after year, a number that strikes Blum as being as constant and artificial as Bernie Madoff’s returns. “What Harvard is doing is imposing a quota on their Asian applicants,” he said. “And they’re accomplishing this by taking Asian applicants and putting them in a pile and saying, ‘These Asian applicants are competing against each other.’”
That strikes Blum as illegal, unethical, unconstitutional, and “un-American.” But he has no personal standing to sue the schools, not being a rejected Asian-American Harvard applicant with a sky-high SAT score and polished résumé himself. Hence the creation of a very strange and very elite admissions process, designed to pull in a huge number of viable candidates and then to weed the weaker ones out.
To fuel his lawsuit, Blum first needed to get the word out to Asian-American students. “If you are reading this, there is a good likelihood that you or someone you know was unfairly and unconstitutionally rejected from Harvard,” the Harvard website reads. “Please tell them about this site. We believe that your race and ethnicity should not be a factor in Harvard’s admissions policies.”
It worked. On college and high-school campuses, the suspicion that Harvard, Yale, and other top schools discriminate against Asians had long persisted. At Stuyvesant, for instance, the student paper ran an opinion piece called “Ivy Day Is Asian Discrimination Day, and Whites Reap the Benefits” this spring. “Among Asian kids, only the ones with really perfect scores were getting in,” says Mindy, a recent graduate of a highly competitive New England boarding school, whose parents are Korean immigrants. “I don’t think that people thought of it as discrimination given that the admissions process is so competitive.”
Blum’s lawsuits — with their promise of forcing Harvard to change its ways — helped to focus and harden those suspicions. Students and student clubs passed the sites around. Then there was all of the national-level media attention — including stories in the Boston Globe, New York Times, and other publications.
Candidates for the lawsuit started to come forward, motivated, Blum said, by a queasy feeling of injustice. “They were seeing kids who did not achieve the same level of academic success or have any greater extracurricular activities get admitted,” Blum said. “That’s got to be very disconcerting for them. I’m sympathetic to it. I think most Americans are sympathetic to it.”
But Blum was not looking to form a class-action suit made up of a huge number of rejected students. Rather, he wanted to whittle down his applicant pool and form an elite class — one where it would be difficult for Harvard to explain why the applicants were rejected but for their race.
His websites then acted as admissions portals, echoing the look of the sites of the schools themselves. Harvardnotfair.org features the school’s famed crimson red, a logo of a laurel wreath, and a stock photograph of a diverse group of students studying on a lush, green lawn.
Interested students would list their hobbies and SAT scores in online intake forms. “It’s not complicated,” said Blum of the admissions process. “Our students are at or higher than Harvard’s average. They’ve participated in varsity sports, foreign travel, and philanthropic endeavors. We are persuaded that they have a résumé that is comparable to any résumé that Harvard has analyzed.”
About a dozen applicants out of 200 have thus far made the cut, he said, for an admissions rate of 6 percent — just below Harvard’s. The applicants not chosen have gotten a gentle rejection letter, letting them know that Blum will keep them up to date on the lawsuit.
Blum declined to let me talk to any of the active participants, wanting to shield them from as much public scrutiny as possible. “It is not easy being a 17-year-old and saying, ‘I’m going to join this lawsuit,’” he said. “It comes out that I’m a sophomore or freshman at Georgetown. The next thing I know, I’ve got a lot of classmates. Some approve. Some don’t. And I’m worried that my professors know, and my grades could be in jeopardy.”
For its part, Harvard has strenuously denied using quotas via its general counsel, Robert Iuliano: “In his seminal opinion in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, Justice Powell specially cited to the Harvard College admissions plan in describing a legally sound approach to admissions,” Iuliano wrote. “Then and now, the College considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community.”
But Harvard’s “individualized, holistic review” system has a long history as a means to exclude minority groups. As shown by Jerome Karabel in The Chosen, once upon a time, Harvard’s preppy elites wanted to restrict the number of Jewish men entering the school. Its admissions process became more opaque and subjective, focused on finding men of “character.” Lo and behold, the proportion of Jewish students dropped.
The same funny processes seem to be at work with Asian students, Blum argues, and persuasively. The number of paper-qualified applicants has grown as the Asian population has grown, but the proportion of admitted students has remained static. He also points to the examples of Caltech and Berkeley, where admissions are totally race-blind and the share of Asian students has swelled.
Blum said that growing public scrutiny of the school’s practices, along with the suit, might help to change the policy. “It’s unfair,” said Irene, a senior at a highly competitive New York public school. (She recently got deferred from Harvard in their early action pool.) “If a student is totally qualified but isn’t accepted because of their race, it’s unfair.”
With his class ready for matriculation, Blum is hoping to prove it.