In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Regents of University of California v. Bakke that using race as a part of the admission decisions was conditional but that strict racial quotas violated the 14th Amendment.
In 1997, Proposition 209 barred public California institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, sex or ethnicity.
In 2018, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education began civil rights investigations into Harvard and Yale College.
The recent investigation seeks to discern whether the institutions discriminated against Asian-Americans “by treating applicants differently based on race during the admissions process,” according to a letter from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent to the student who filed a complaint against Yale.
Seniors, who are currently undergoing the college application process, said they are unsure how the investigations will affect them.
“I think with the recent lawsuits, no one really knows what is going to happen and there is a huge air of uncertainty as to how this will affect my classmates’ and my college prospects,” Pam* ’19 said.
Sebastian Ko ’19 said he was not surprised when he heard news of the lawsuits. Ko, however, supports affirmative action even though he believes it “works against him.”
“Even though there are lawsuits now, it’s not like I’m shocked that it’s going on,” Ko said. “I feel like it’s something that was already going on, and now it’s only becoming public.”
Following the announcement, Yale President Peter Salovey wrote in an email to students, faculty and alumni that Yale does not discriminate against any group in the admissions process.
“We take into consideration a multitude of factors, including their academic achievement, interests, demonstrated leadership, background, success in taking maximum advantage of their secondary school and community resources and the likelihood that they will contribute to the Yale community and the world,” Salovey said in the email. “This whole-person approach to admissions complies fully with all legal requirements and has been endorsed repeatedly by the Supreme Court.”
Yale student Jarett Malouf ’18 said that he believes Salovey even though he has not remained up-to-date on these recent developments to the affirmative action debate.
The investigation into Yale follows the Trump administration’s public backing in August of a 2014 lawsuit brought against Harvard College by Students for Fair Admissions and a coalition of Asian-American students. The Supreme Court allows colleges and universities to consider a variety of factors, including race, in admission decisions but has stated that these deliberations must be conducted in a manner to promote diversity, according to the Associated Press.
Edward Blum, president and founder of Student for Fair Admissions, previously filed a lawsuit criticizing affirmative action policies against the University of Texas at Austin in 2016. That case, in which Blum recruited a white student who claimed she was rejected by the university due to her race, according to Vox, went to the Supreme Court but failed to dismantle affirmative action.
Supporters of affirmative action criticize Blum’s actions because of his motives. A Washington Post piece written by two law professors said that Blum is using the case to delegitimize the use of affirmative action as whole.
“If we look at the background of the person who helped spearhead the lawsuit, I’m not sure if his background totally lines up with supporting minority groups or helping them get into college or have better opportunities in life,” Asian Students in Action Vice President Sarah Moon ’19 said. “They seem to be using affirmative action as a tool to decrease the presence of minority groups, even if they’re increasing the presence of [Asians], overall, the presence [of racial minorities] will be lessened.”
Moon said that critics of affirmative action may be supporting this lawsuit to emphasize a flaw in the policy.
“Asian students are who people say affirmative action is hurting the most, but I think overall [prominent critics of affirmative action] are not trying to really help Asian students,” Moon said. “Although Asians might be helped, their motive is something entirely different.”
Blum and his projects received almost $2.9 million from DonorsTrust—which gives money from conservative donors to a number of causes—and affiliated nonprofits between 2010 and 2015, according to Politico.
Upper School Dean Celso Cardenas said that he hopes that those who take up a cause, like the one around affirmative action, are genuinely invested.
“You just question what the motivation is behind certain individuals, especially those that don’t have kind of a personal stake in something,” Cardenas said. “Is it more so that they’re trying to do this to move a certain agenda forward or just for notoriety?”
The plaintiffs of the lawsuit contend that Harvard uses a policy of “racial balancing” in which it artificially lowers the amount of Asian-Americans students, while admitting less qualified applicants from other racial backgrounds, according to The New York Times.
The group filed court documents in at federal court in Boston in June.
The information field includes an analysis of more than 160,000 student records that revealed Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality, likability, courage, kindness and being widely respected.”
One of the documents indicated that though Harvard conducted an internal investigation into its admissions policies in 2013 and found bias against Asian-American applicants, the school never made the findings public or acted on them, according to The New York Times.
Harvard student Anna Gong ’18 said the Harvard College administration has not addressed the student body as a whole and that discussion about affirmative action usually only occurs between friends.
Students may not even privately discuss the investigations because affirmative action no longer affects them or it did not influence their own college admissions processes that much, Harvard student and former Chronicle Assistant News Editor Indu Pandey ’18 said.
“There’s a weird conception that everyone here talks about [the lawsuit], but the people here who are literally at Harvard were the ones that weren’t affected by bias and affirmative action,” Pandey said. “They were either benefited by affirmative action, affirmative action had no effect on them or they were able to overcome whatever potential negative bias there might have been.”
Gong said that though the case does not affect her directly anymore, she personally believes that it’s important to consider the motivations of the groups that are backing the lawsuit.
“I think these backers are definitely pushing their own political agenda, and I don’t think they have the students’ best intentions in mind considering how divided our own opinions are,” Gong said. “Regardless of the results of the lawsuit, I’m ambivalent about how influential this case is. What gives them the right to decide what’s right for schools all across the country? Shouldn’t the students get a say?”
Regardless of the results of the lawsuits, the diversity that affirmative action policies seek to increase on campus is an integral part of the college experience, Gong said.
“I honestly feel like I didn’t understand what diversity was until I entered college,” Gong said. “When your roommate is Australian, your stand partner is from Tallahassee, Florida and your classmates in your math section alone are from five different countries, you start to understand how different peoples’ experiences are and how important it is to value every experience. I’m in favor of affirmative action. It might seem ironic considering this is the very policy that could have prevented me from being accepted, and you might think I’m only saying this because I got in, but I understand that there is a bigger societal picture that needs to be seen to.”
*Names have been changed