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Trial Over Race-Based Admissions At Harvard Wraps Up


A federal trial about race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University wraps up today. For the past three weeks, a judge has been hearing testimony about whether Harvard is giving Asian-American applicants a fair chance to get in. The trial has opened a window into how highly selective admissions processes tend to work across the U.S. And it's raised a lot of questions about fairness and merit, and a case that could have broad implications for similar affirmative action policies at selective colleges across the country. Max Larkin of our member station WBUR has been covering this story and joins us now. Max, thanks for being here.

MAX LARKIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What are the two sides arguing?

LARKIN: Well, you have one side, Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA as they call it, stepping forward under the mantle of Edward Blum. He's a conservative legal activist. He's been fighting these kinds of cases, and he's a staunch opponent of affirmative action. They are pointing to data, Rachel, that shows that more and more Asian-Americans are submitting really high-quality applications to Harvard every year. So in theory, they say, Harvard should be accepting a lot more of those students if they were following federal antidiscrimination law, if they were not racially balancing their class, which they're not allowed to do.

Now, for the past week, Harvard has been pushing back on that premise. They're showing ways in which Asian-Americans actually get a preference over peers from other races. And they're saying that Asian-American admission rates have varied, and generally, they've increased.

MARTIN: And you also - you also hear from colleges around the country - Harvard, too, I imagine - that they're looking at a whole host of issues. It's not just academic performance, right?

LARKIN: That's right. They are saying they tend, at Harvard, to have excellent students. They tend to have a pretty high threshold for what gets you in. But after that, they kind of want a little bit of everything. They describe this really interesting system of tips. That's what they call little admissions advantages that they give to students with attributes that they're seeking. They do give tips, they say, to black and Hispanic students, but they also give them to athletes, to people from what they call sparse country, rural parts of America, from low-income neighborhoods and also to the children of Harvard alumni.

Harvard's lawyers have said this is the way they want to put together what they think of as the ideal educational community. Plaintiffs say it's a recipe for bias. I kind of think of it as the dinner party defense. Harvard's been in business for almost four centuries. They've been using this particular system for almost a century. And in court, they're saying, listen, we know what we're doing. We've thrown a lot of these parties before. And we know how to put together an invite list.

MARTIN: Have you talked to students at campus? I mean, is this something that's dividing people? What are they telling you?

LARKIN: I don't think it is dividing people, Rachel. I mean, when I go around, I talk to Harvard students, obviously, who got in, so they might be biased. But they want to defend the status quo system. There was a rally just as the trial was beginning in federal court. Asian-American students were walking around wearing pins that said, not your wedge. They're objecting to being used as - in their words as political pawns of Edward Blum, opponents of affirmative action.

And this week, the court began - in court, the trial began with students of color saying they appreciated that Harvard took their race into account, that it was in an essential part of their identity apart from being, say, low income. One of the students standing up for his school at that rally was Adelson Aguasvivas. He's a sophomore at Harvard. He was born in the Dominican Republic, but raised in Newburgh, N.Y. And he says he's glad that Harvard looked at him as an immigrant and as a relatively poor student. But he doesn't think that explicitly is what got him in or not exactly.

ADELSON AGUASVIVAS: Being from a poor background, an immigrant, there was - there has been so much struggle. And I've always persevered through that struggle. I feel like that's what stood out the most to them - the fact that I would never let myself, like, stay down.

MARTIN: Just, Max, real briefly, when are we expecting the judge to rule on this?

LARKIN: It could be months, Rachel. I mean, this is an incredibly dense body of evidence, so it takes some time. And then it may end up before the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: Max Larkin from WBUR. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.