SFFA v. Harvard Makes a Return

John David

  • Article
  • March 17, 2020

CounterCurrent: Week of 3/15


In October, Judge Allison Burroughs of the Massachusetts District Court handed down her decision in the case of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard. She ruled that Harvard’s admissions policies do not discriminate against Asian American applicants, but her reasons for the decision are not totally clear.

On the one hand, she states in her decision that “diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions.” She also asserts that “Harvard evaluates that likely racial composition of its class and provides tips to applicants to help it achieve a diverse class.” What exactly is the “part” that race plays in admissions? What is a “diverse” class as determined by Harvard? Neither Harvard nor Burroughs have given an adequate answer.

On the other hand, Burroughs plainly acknowledges that fewer Asian Americans are admitted than white students, and that they are frequently denied in favor of minority students with much worse academic records. This is in large part due to the mysterious “personal rating,” an unspecified score given to each applicant based on...well, no one really knows. Burroughs writes that “The disparity in personal ratings suggests that at least some admissions officers might have subconsciously provided tips in the personal rating, particularly to African American and Hispanic applicants to create an alignment between the profile ratings and the race-conscious overall ratings that they were assigning.” 

You may be thinking: Wait, what? We are too. Somehow, Burroughs found that none of this results in racial quotas or unlawful racial preference. This comes as a great disappointment to NAS and many others watching the case.

SFFA v. Harvard is out of Judge Burroughs' hands, but it’s not a done deal—Students for Fair Admissions has appealed the decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. NAS is proud to have submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of this appeal. In this week’s featured article, we introduce the motives and content of our brief, outlining our main disagreements with Burroughs’ decision. We also provide a link to the full, 32-page document. 

In the brief, NAS President Peter Wood states that “NAS continues to support SFFA and the fight for the principle that students should be admitted on the basis of academic achievement, proven ability, ambition, and commitment to learning … Judge Burroughs and Harvard admitted that Asian students have poor ‘personal qualities,’ a clear indication of racist stereotyping. Even with this admission of race as a qualitative reason for dismissing Asian applicants, the District Court allowed the wool to be pulled over its eyes.”

NAS is not alone in our support of SFFA’s appeal. Late last month, the Department of Justice joined us and submitted a brief of their own, citing many of the same reasons. We are optimistic about the future of this case, and we hope that Burroughs’ decision will be overturned by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. Doing so will help ensure fair and equitable admissions at Harvard and, consequently, in the rest of the nation.


CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’  weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Administrative Associate John David. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Claire Anderson, Public Domain

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