Asian-American groups accuse Harvard of discrimination

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Story highlights

  • A coalition of more than 60 Asian-American groups accuses Harvard of discrimination
  • They ask federal authorities to investigate Harvard's admissions policies
  • The university stands by its "holistic" approach to the admissions process

(CNN)A coalition of Asian-American organizations says the federal government should step in to change Harvard's approach to admissions, accusing the university of racial discrimination.

In a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department on Friday, the coalition of more than 60 groups claims that the university unfairly holds Asian-American applicants to a higher standard. Asian-Americans have the lowest acceptance rates at Harvard University and other elite universities, the complaint alleges, despite having some of the highest test scores and overall academic achievement.
"People from all over the world came to America for equal opportunities. We are trying to bring those principles back to America," said Yukong Zhao, a Chinese-American author who helped organize the coalition. "This isn't just about discrimination and race. It is about justice for everyone, including (people of) all races, and social and economic statuses."
It's an argument that the school staunchly denies. And it's a case that's been made before. In November, a lawsuit from Students for Fair Admissions Inc. challenged Harvard's admissions policy and argued it discriminates against Asian-American students.
That lawsuit, which is pending in federal court, and several studies are part of the evidence the coalition points to in its complaint, Zhao said.
The complaint argues that although the total population of Asian and Pacific Islanders has increased in the United States, the admission rate for Asian-Americans at Harvard University has remained relatively static.
Harvard's general counsel said the university's admissions policies are "fully compliant with the law."
"In fact, within its holistic admissions process, and as part of its effort to build a diverse class, Harvard College has demonstrated a strong record of recruiting and admitting Asian-American students," Harvard University General Counsel Robert Iuliano said in an online statement posted in response to the complaint.

'Make it fair'

But the coalition -- made up of Chinese-, Indian-, Korean- and Pakistani-American organizations across the United States -- says that's not true.
The groups are asking the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to launch an investigation to stop Harvard University's so-called holistic approach to admissions.
In this approach, Harvard says it reviews each applicant's background and personal characteristics, including -- when relevant -- the applicant's race or ethnicity, as one of the many factors in its admissions process.
Chunyan Li, an assistant professor of accounting at Pace University who helped recruit groups to join the complaint, said the university's emphasis on race in the application process is unfair.
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"This approach is subjective," Li said. "If it is all implemented objectively, then how come all Asians on average have such higher scores? What's the fairness in this? If (Harvard) pushes for (a) holistic approach, then make it fair. If you kept emphasizing race, then there is no way out."
The complaint points to a racial breakdown of SAT scores, citing the 2011 book "No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal."
"An Asian-American student has to score 140 points higher than a white student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student and 450 points higher than a black student on the SAT to be on equal footing," Princeton Professor Thomas J. Espenshade and RTI International researcher Alexandria Walton Radford argue in the book.
This year Harvard said it accepted 5.3% of applicants who applied for a spot in the Class of 2019. Of the 1,990 admitted students, 21% identified as Asian-American, 13.3% as Latino and 12.1% as African-American.

Critics: Efforts aim to end affirmative action

The November lawsuit and last week's complaint have drawn fire from some Asian-American groups, who claim the aim of conservative activists behind them is to end affirmative action, not to level the playing field for Asian-American students.
"What this lawsuit is really is just the latest attempt to derail an apparatus that has given hundreds of thousands of blacks, Hispanics and, yes, Asians a means to climb out of circumstances defined by our society's historical racism," Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Jeff Yang said in an opinion piece for CNN.com last year.
Two Asian-American commissioners on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said Friday that they were concerned about efforts to undermine affirmative action.
"While we have not reviewed the actual complaint against Harvard University, we hope that this is a sincerely raised issue and not a back door attack on affirmative action that attempts to pit Asian-Americans against other minorities, as other efforts have been," Michael Yaki and Karen Narasaki said in a statement.
Harvard says it stands by its approach.
"We will vigorously defend the right of Harvard, and other universities, to continue to seek the educational benefits that come from a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions," Iuliano said.