Positive discrimination at Harvard: the end of a contested conception of justice?


In 2014, an NGO  attacked the universities of North Carolina and Harvard , accusing them of discriminating against Asian students in favor of white students through “affirmative action” practices supposed to promote ethno-racial diversity. After several years of proceedings, the Supreme Court of the United States must finally render its decision in June 2023.

This decision will be imposed on all the universities which practice this positive discrimination set up in the 1960s in reaction to the exclusion from which black Americans had suffered. This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has had to rule on its legality. In previous decisions, it had notably prohibited quotas as well as automatic additional point systems according to race .

The court had explained, in 2013 and again in 2016, that universities should look for other ways to diversify their promotions, that is to say racially neutral. But as long as race is not the only criterion of choice , the Supreme Court has until now accepted positive discrimination. It is considered that the appointment of several conservative judges by Donald Trump to the Supreme Court could tip the scales in favor of opponents of “ affirmative action” .

This important decision will also impact business practices. The challenge is to turn the page on positive discrimination policies that have a negative impact on certain ethno-racial minorities. This can only be done by tackling discrimination based on social origin with racially neutral policies. The example of Harvard is in this respect crucial for understanding the limits of the policies implemented so far.

The biases of subjective personality assessments

In its defense, Harvard was forced to disclose unpublished data on its recruitments. Never have so many details about the reality of student selection been available. What the data transmitted show is that not only Asian students would be victims of discrimination (Harvard denies this) but above all that the recruitment procedure would favor the children of the rich to the detriment of the others.

Alongside positive discrimination for the benefit of blacks and Hispanics, which Harvard recognizes, discrimination on the grounds of social origin, discreet and wide-ranging, would persist. This is detailed by an economist from Duke University, Peter Arcidiacono, who has exploited the mass of information concerning all Harvard recruitments over several years .

On the one hand, at Harvard as in other universities, it appears that Asian applicants are disadvantaged although their academic scores are significantly better . To explain this phenomenon, Harvard notes that the selection of students is based on other criteria, more personal or extracurricular . There are letters of recommendation, involvement in community life and above all the “personal rating”. The grade is awarded on the basis of an essay written by the candidate, an interview with a former student, the opinion of a member of staff who has sometimes met the candidates during a visit to the campus, reports from his teachers.

Harvard does not give a precise definition of this criterion. The evaluation of personal qualities gives rise to judgments of the supposed personality of the candidates which are found pell-mell in the documents of the university: “integrity, benevolence, courage, kindness, helpfulness, resilience, empathy, self-confidence, leadership skills, maturity, perseverance”. What is certain, however, is that this “personal rating” is decisive for admission (80% of those admitted have 1 or 2 on a scale of 5) and, curiously, Asian students are poorly judged on this criterion.

Three hypotheses can be put forward to explain this observation: the first is that the university would have quantitative objectives to achieve each year by ethno-racial group, which the university denies. The second is that Asian candidates are really different (from the point of view of their personality, for example) and the last is that recruiters have a judgment of Asians that is biased by stereotypes .

Note that the personality assessment is made through an interview with a former graduate who is in no way a psychologist or a recruitment professional. As the Department of Justice points out , Harvard seems to practice quotas unofficially, notably through its subjective personality assessments. The Department of Justice demonstrates this by asking a question that Harvard cannot easily answer: why is the Personal Rating of Asians lower than that of whites each year and the percentages by ethno-racial groups stable?

Heir students

This is not the first time that Harvard has been accused of using assessments relating to supposed personality to drastically reduce the admissions of quality students deemed too numerous. In the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish candidates were the victims; they did not then have the appropriate “character and fitness” . There were 20% Jewish students at Harvard in 1920, 28% in 1925, and after the introduction of the character-based admissions process their share fell to 15%. Several major universities have implemented these personality assessments to screen out Jewish applicants as described by a Berkeley sociology professor in his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. In a review of the book , a Harvard sociology professor points out that it is this admissions system, whose origins date back to the anti-Semitism of the 1920s, that must be reformed until today.

Other criteria play a role when selecting students, such as being a child of a graduate. This positive discrimination for the benefit of the families of alumni, perfectly assumed and official , is explained by the sense of the collective that it would develop and the financial support of former students – all aspects which would benefit everyone and therefore also the less favored. . These heirs represent 14% of the student body and they are almost 6 times more likely to be admitted than the others.

Harvard is not a special case. It is estimated that in large universities, especially the most selective and those that are private, the rate of children of former graduates is between 10 and 25% . The problem is serious enough that some universities have already abandoned these practices and that some states are beginning to require institutions to provide figures for these admissions (California) or even prohibit the nudges given to these heirs (Colorado).

Then there are the students who are lucky enough to be the children of the big

donors. They are on what is called the “Dean’s List” at the discretion of management and account for 9.5% of admissions in 2019. Then, the children of Harvard staff (teachers, administrative staff) represent 1.3% students.

Finally, Harvard also practices positive discrimination in favor of athletes, explaining that they would help develop a sense of community on campus and are an element of diversity beneficial to other students.

We can say that these favored groups are not that numerous, yet they make up 29% of the workforce. In fact, 43% of white people at Harvard belong to one of these privileged groups (and only 16% of students who are black, Hispanic, or Asian). Worse, 75% of these students (children of donors, children of staff, athletes and children of Harvard alumni) would never have joined Harvard University without these big boosts in view of their skills.

Sport and social reproduction

Economists have taken a close interest in these happy well-born children or distinguished athletes . Let’s start with athletes, who represent 10% of students. These have lower test scores than others and would never have entered this prestigious university without being athletes. They are 14 times more likely to be admitted (86% chance against 5.5% for the basic candidate). One could say that this is part of the diversity or that the prestige of sporting achievements is an asset for Harvard.

And then we intuitively imagine that these great athletes belong to all social backgrounds (sport as a social lift) and that, through sport, more diverse profiles would integrate Harvard. It is not so. In reality, the recruitment of “athletes” functions as a discreet mechanism of social reproduction. 3.2% of admitted white athletes are economically disadvantagedwhen ordinary admissions are 14.6%. In 2019, 26% of these white athletes had parents earning more than $500,000 a year compared to the college average of 15.4%. Harvard is the university which offers, curiously, the largest number of competitive sports (42) so that many sports precisely practiced by the richest are offered (squash, field hockey, skiing, etc.). And we discover that it is not only high-level athletes who benefit from a boost ( tip ) but also simple practitioners.

Since 2019 and the scandal of fake athletes from good families who were integrated into the best universities by means of fake documents prepared at great expense by consultants, light is beginning to be shed on the recruitment of the famous “athletes”. Among the athletes admitted to Harvard, there are only 3% of young people from modest backgrounds, while they are 14% among the ordinary admitted.

If Harvard no longer considered race or ethnicity in its admissions, the result would be a significant shift in admissions rates at the expense of black and Hispanic students . But this result, observed in other universities which have had to give up affirmative action, does not take into account other modifications which could be made in the recruitment process. Other student selection criteria could be decided such as place of residence, parental income, social category or level of education.

On the other hand, if the university stopped giving a bonus to the children of alumni, big donors and athletes, the share of white students would drop and the share of students whose parents are wealthy would drop sharply . Correcting the effects of social origin by abandoning privileges and network effects is both fair and contributes to equal access, including ethno-racial access.

The Supreme Court’s decision will put the question of social origin at the heart of policies in the field of education and work, while the racial prism was hitherto dominant in the United States. The other consequence is to challenge the idea that the pursuit of diversity, sometimes resulting in losers (Asians), would justify all practices. Finally, in universities as in companies, the privileges drawn from the family network will be scrutinized more and more and it is there that the main effect of the great unpacking on the procedures of Harvard which we are witnessing and of this Supreme Court decision.

Author Bio: Jean-Francois Amadieu is a University Professor at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne