Dozens of students filled Daniel Family Commons on Sunday night for a discussion about affirmative action and the current lawsuit alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Organized by the Wesleyan Asian-American Student Collective (AASC), the event brought together allies from numerous identity and affinity groups to grapple with the history of affirmative action in the United States and the potential implications of the Harvard lawsuit.
The discussion was led by student panelists representing AASC, Chinese Culture Club, First-Class, MIX Club, Shakti, and Ujamaa. Beginning with a definition and background of affirmative action and its role in college admissions, the speakers continued to discuss the insidious motivations behind the Harvard lawsuit. The case, which was argued before a District Court judge in October, was filed by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group led by longtime affirmative action opponent Ed Blum. It accuses Harvard of practicing illegal “racial balancing” in its admissions process, giving Black and Latinx applicants an advantage over Asian Americans. While Blum has championed a number of affirmative action lawsuits advocating for white plaintiffs, most notably Abigail Fisher’s case against UT Austin in 2016, he has now turned to representing Asian Americans in the current legal battle, raising new questions about how affirmative action can disadvantage even minority applicants.
The event created a space where students from different backgrounds could share their perspectives on an issue that involves every marginalized identity. With the potential for the case to go to the Supreme Court, the implications outlawing race-conscious admissions would affect applicants of all minority racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Serena Chow ’21, who helped organize the event and represented AASC on the panel, described the space she and her fellow organizers wanted to create.
“I have come to see how divided my community and many other Asian American communities have become regarding race-conscious admission policies and the alleged claims of discrimination against Asian-American applicants,” she wrote in an email to The Argus. “I wanted to hold an event where students of all identities had an inclusive platform to engage in open discussion with each other and hear different perspectives they might not have considered before.”
Chow also commented on how the lawsuit has challenged her to reconcile her condemnation of racial bias against Asian Americans with her opposition to a lawsuit that could overturn decades-old college admissions practices that have made institutions of higher education more inclusive. Speaking with attendees about how Blum and the SFFA have created a false opposition between these values reaffirmed her belief that supporting both Asian Americans and affirmative action and opposing the lawsuit are not mutually exclusive.
“[Witnessing] the support of our allies has shown me that condemning any implicit bias Asian American applicants face does not at all have to be contradictory to supporting affirmative action policies,” she wrote.
Midway through the event, a number of representatives from the Office of Admissions arrived, and the panelists were quick to include them in the discussion. Speaking about the role race plays in Wesleyan’s admissions process, Associate Dean of Admissions Cliff Thornton said that race is just one of many factors he and his colleagues consider when making admissions decisions.
“We practice holistic admissions and we adhere to current law that race is one of many factors in the process,” he said. “So it’s not that racial identity is a dominant factor, it’s one factor among all the other pieces of an application that we consider, but we certainly take it into consideration.”
Associate Dean of Admissions Kora Shin ’10 continued that no admissions decision is complete without a consideration of the context of a student’s application. Wesleyan’s holistic admissions process recognizes the environment in which a student was raised and educated and the identities they have. Looking at a student’s grades, test scores, and extracurricular accomplishments only says so much, so the merit of a student must be considered alongside racial and socioeconomic factors. This consideration is particularly necessary in the U.S.
“I think it’s important to recognize that, when thinking about merit, you can’t have merit without context,” Shin said. “There’s no such thing as that, at least in the United States…. Being able to practice the holistic review allows the admissions office to really be able to take that context into consideration and with Wesleyan in particular over the last several years also being a test optional school, these are all ways we are able to allow students to put their best foot forward and also allow our office to build a class that will bring different perspectives to the table.”
Thornton spoke to the fact that even thirty-five years after affirmative action appeared in college admissions, African-American and Hispanic students are still underrepresented at most elite schools. While Wesleyan’s admissions statistics show that Asian students represent the Class of 2022’s largest racial minority group at 20 percent of the class, with Hispanic, Black, and Native American/Pacific Islander students at 11 percent, 10 percent, and 2.3 percent respectively, Thornton said that 15 years ago, Black and Hispanic students far outnumbered Asian students.
He also commented on the pressure that Wesleyan is under to compete with its peer institutions in diversifying its student body. According to Thornton, Wesleyan does not currently have the resources to measure up to its wealthier, and therefore more diverse, peers.
“Amherst is more racially diverse than Wesleyan,” he said. “That was not the case 15 years ago. We really can’t afford to compete with some of our peer schools. At some point at Wesleyan, students would turn down Ivies because Wesleyan was more diverse…. With financial aid, schools with no-loan packages regardless of family income, Wesleyan can’t compete financially, and that’s hurt us in terms of our outreach, particularly in terms of Black and Latinx students.”
Saadia Naeem ’20, who represented Shakti, Wesleyan’s South Asian student group, on Sunday evening, thought the discussion was necessary but did not come away from the event with a greater understanding of how she felt about the lawsuit and the state of affirmative action in general.
“I wish that we had started the talk with some sort of more in-depth presentation, where we could provide the facts to the audience and then have all of us kind of get an idea of where we stand,” she told The Argus. “It would have been cool to maybe watch the first episode of ‘Patriot Act’ all together and then jumpstart the discussion from there.”
Even though she may have left Sunday’s event feeling more conflicted than she did when she arrived, the discussion reaffirmed Naeem’s belief in the importance of spaces where students of color from different campus groups can convene and discuss issues that pertain to a wide array of identities. While affinity groups hold cultural events and showcases, such as Shakti’s Samsara, Ajúa Campos’ Expresiones, and the African Student Association’s Ariya, they do not provoke the same sharing of views that Sunday’s event did.
“I think we need more spaces where different SOC groups can meet and hear each other and get each other’s perspectives,” she wrote. “The different shows and performances we all do are beautiful, and they do an incredible job of showcasing our different cultures and lives. But it’s these types of discussions that actually allow us to support each other and come together, which is what we need more of.”
In looking towards the District Court’s decision, which is expected in 2019, Thornton said that whatever the verdict, the case will go to the Supreme Court for a final ruling after the losing side inevitably appeals. Given the current makeup of the Court, he is predicting a ruling that will completely change what we understand as holistic admissions.
“Whether or not affirmative action survives, it’ll certainly look different if it exists at all,” he said. “That’s just the unfortunate reality.”
William Halliday can be reached at email@example.com.