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Professor On Why She Supports Harvard Admissions Practices

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A lawsuit against Harvard University got a high-profile boost from the Trump administration this past week. The suit accuses Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American students in its admissions process. Now the Justice Department has weighed in, saying the college engages in unlawful racial balancing by using a vague personal rating that harms Asian-American applicants' chances for admission.

More than 500 academics, including many Asian-Americans, have filed their own legal brief defending Harvard's admissions practices. One of the co-authors of that brief is OiYan Poon, assistant professor at Colorado State, where she studies race and college access. Professor Poon, welcome to the program.

OIYAN POON: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And let's describe first how Harvard uses race in its admissions. The college describes it as a whole-person admissions process. They factor in personal traits, including likability and kindness and courage, along with test scores and academic performance and other things. And race is one of those factors that they weigh in.

POON: Absolutely. Race is one of many, many factors. It is not a determinative factor. It is not the only factor, which is in line with current case law in affirmative action.

BLOCK: The group that is suing Harvard - it's called Students for Fair Admission (ph). That group says its analysis of some applicants shows that by using personality factors, like likability, kindness, courage, that that actually makes the college discriminate against Asian-Americans. Do you see any truth to that?

POON: I do not. First, the analysis that was done for SFFA was very much cherry-picking data. The other analysis on the Harvard side that accounts for all data available demonstrates that looking at students' personal traits, including home community, parental occupation, major and academic interests - it does not bear out that there is a discriminatory situation happening.

BLOCK: The group's founder is a man named Edward Blum. He has challenged other affirmative action policies in court before. Do you think this one stands a chance of getting traction with the court?

POON: Well, unfortunately, I can't predict that, but I do know that it's certainly gaining a lot of traction in the public discourse. Ed Blum is a longtime legal activist who not only has attacked affirmative action in higher education, but his other campaign is around minority voting rights, including immigrant voting rights. And so he is not a friend of Asian-Americans.

BLOCK: I've seen this term used - racial mascotting - in other words, the idea that Asian-Americans are being used essentially as pawns for a broader aim of dismantling affirmative action. Do you think that's what's going on here?

POON: Absolutely. Ed Blum - in 2015, he approached a Chinese-American community organization and went to an event and basically said, I need an Asian plaintiff. If he was not racial mascotting, he wouldn't be - have been recruiting someone - an Asian face to be his cover for his anti-civil-rights agenda.

BLOCK: At the same time, though, there are Asian-American organizations that are supporting this lawsuit. And one of the groups, the Asian-American Coalition for Education - the president of that group said in a statement, I would like to advise all colleges that adopt Harvard admissions models, stop your discriminatory practices. Race-based admissions policy is divisive and immoral.

POON: Well, AACE is just one upstart organization - very new, only founded in 2015. And they do not represent the majority opinion among Asian-Americans. As we cited in our amicus brief on behalf of over 500 social scientists on this past Thursday, opinion polls over the last several decades demonstrate that the great majority of Asian-Americans remain supportive of race-conscious admission policies.

BLOCK: I was looking at an analysis of the incoming class, of Harvard's class of 2022. Asian-Americans make up 22.7 percent of that class, African-Americans 14.5 percent...

POON: Yup.

BLOCK: ...Latinos 10.8 percent. What do those numbers tell you?

POON: Well, when you consider that the national population of Asian-Americans is only about 6 percent, and Harvard's demographics of incoming students this year is actually close to 23 percent, it really just - using common sense, it doesn't seem that Harvard is discriminating against Asian-Americans. And then when you dig deeper into the data and analysis, it's clear that there is no evidence of anti-Asian bias.

BLOCK: OiYan Poon is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Professor Poon, thanks so much.

POON: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "LEVELED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.