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Closely-Watched Harvard Admissions Trial Comes To A Close


We turn now to Boston, where today a closely watched trial focusing on Harvard University's admissions process came to a close - though the story is far from over. A group called Students for Fair Admissions has accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants by rating them lower on what's known as a personal score. As you might expect, Harvard vigorously defended both its admissions process and how that process serves the goal of a diverse student body. Kirk Carapezza of WGBH was in the courtroom for the past three weeks and joins us on the line now. Welcome.


CHANG: So closing arguments were today. You've been following the testimony for weeks. I want to start with the plaintiffs. What struck you most listening to their witnesses?

CARAPEZZA: What struck me was how complicated the admissions process is - how many layers there are and how many factors Harvard says it considers when deciding exactly which students to admit. Now, the plaintiffs argue Harvard falsely stereotypes against Asian-Americans as being one-dimensional, shy, quiet, book smart - they pointed to some comments scribbled on certain applications, which were kept anonymous. And to prove their case, they called a bunch of admissions counselors. They also called an expert witness - a guy named - Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono. He's paid by the group to study six years of Harvard's admissions database. And he concluded that the college systematically discriminates against Asian-Americans. He also found two-thirds of African-Americans and one half of Hispanic applicants are admitted due to what he called racial preferences.

CHANG: And how did Harvard respond to all of these allegations during this trial?

CARAPEZZA: Ailsa, Harvard says Arcidiacono's analysis is flawed because it ignores personal essays and teacher recommendations. The college says it doesn't prove that Harvard is intentionally capping the number of qualified Asian-Americans. The college also points out that his analysis excludes a subset of applicants - applicants including recruited athletes and children of alumni. Harvard basically says his model is broken and that it doesn't accurately replicate the admissions process.

CHANG: Now, I understand that no Asian-American applicant testified at this trial even though they're the ones the plaintiffs say they're representing, right?

CARAPEZZA: Right. And after the trial today, I asked the group's lead lawyer Adam Mortara whether he thought that would make a difference in the outcome. And he said absolutely not.

ADAM MORTARA: The judge ruled very early on in the case that we had standing as an organization of 22,000 people - including our standing members - to bring this suit. This suit was about Harvard. It was about Harvard's treatment of Asian-Americans - doesn't need to be about any particular individual student. That's what the court said.

CARAPEZZA: And, Ailsa, we should point out that Harvard lawyers say if there were a file that showed intentional discrimination we would have seen it in court.

CHANG: OK. Let's get into what's at stake here for Harvard and for other universities in general because whatever's decided in this case could very well extend beyond Harvard. Isn't that correct?

CARAPEZZA: That's right. This is widely seen as a backdoor attack on affirmative action. The group Students for Fair Admissions opposes the consideration of race in any form. One college leader told me this week that this case goes to the heart of who we are as a society and what kind of latitude we give to our institutions of higher education.

CHANG: And do a lot of people expect to see this going to the Supreme Court?

CARAPEZZA: Yes, the judge will now review all the evidence. It could - she could deliver an opinion early next year. And whoever loses that decision is expected to appeal. Some legal experts are predicting this case could ultimately reach the Supreme Court.

CHANG: All right, that's Kirk Carapezza of WGBH in Boston. Thanks, Kirk.

CARAPEZZA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, connecting the dots between post-secondary education and the economy, national security, jobs and global competitiveness. Kirk has been a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis.; a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad. Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway. You can follow Kirk on Twitter @KirkCarapezza.