Stanford, alongside 15 other elite universities, filed an amicus brief supporting Harvard University in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University case that is expected to wrap up on Friday. Students for Fair Admission allege that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants through race-conscious admissions processes, such as a personality scoring system that the plaintiffs believe perpetuates stereotypes against Asian-American applicants.
Although U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs will deliver the initial ruling, Burroughs and both parties in the case expect it to ultimately reach the Supreme Court.
Stanford’s Office of the General Counsel filed the amicus brief on Aug. 1, representing not just Stanford but also all of the Ivy League schools aside from Harvard. The brief urges the court to affirm race-conscious admissions like that practiced by Harvard.
In the brief, Stanford and co-filers acknowledge their own practices of race-conscious admissions and “speak with one voice to emphasize the profound importance of a diverse student body for their educational missions.” The brief highlights how schools like Stanford “strive to enroll a diverse student body” because “doing so significantly deepens the students’ educational experience.”
The brief also includes mention that race and ethnicity are just one factor considered during the holistic review of applications, arguing, “it is artificial to consider an applicant’s experiences and perspectives while turning a blind eye to race. For many applicants their race has influenced, and will continue to influence, their experiences and perspectives.”
The case, however, may not affect affirmative action as a whole. Stanford Law Professor Richard Ford ’88 addressed such concerns in an interview with The Daily.
“In beyond appeal to the Supreme Court, [the repeal of affirmative action] is a possibility,” Ford said. “Until and unless the Supreme Court reviews it, the implications are less dramatic, because the current law about the constitutionality of affirmative action is settled.“
“There are two separate issues, and the Court can decide that Harvard is behaving unlawfully without deciding that Harvard’s affirmative action program is unlawful,” he added. “Really consistently, people are saying if Harvard discriminated against Asian-Americans, and that somehow demonstrates that affirmative action is to blame or that affirmative action is a problem. That’s not necessarily true. Harvard could have discriminated in a way that is not related to their affirmative action program.”
Despite this, due to the new Supreme Court makeup, it is unclear exactly how Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University will be resolved, nor is it clear whether and in what form affirmative action may persist. Stanford, as an elite university, is also in the spotlight, but has not yet faced a lawsuit akin to those filed against Harvard and Yale. Many students at Stanford have spoken out about affirmative action and the Harvard lawsuit, echoing the diverse and contentious perspectives on this issue that pervade the Asian-American community.
“The narrative being drawn by this lawsuit is that Asians are the model minority, are high-achieving and are shoo-ins for elite universities, but because of affirmative action, they’re being denied spots at elite universities that are being given to other applicants who aren’t as qualified but are black or brown,” said Huanvy Phan ‘20, a Vietnamese-American student from Arizona. “I think it’s a very harmful narrative, because it condenses the diverse backgrounds Asian-Americans come from – especially low-income Southeast Asians.”
Phan claimed that such a narrative directly impacts the ways Asian-Americans applied to schools like Stanford.
“When I was applying to schools, my father knew about affirmative action and urged me to make myself seem less Asian,” they said. “For example, [he told me to] not emphasize the fact that I was in orchestra for seven years and highlight my experience with political campaigns. I’ve heard stories of Asian-Americans not checking the Asian box or mixed-race Asian-Americans who only check their other racial identity or use more Americanized names in order to ‘deracialize’ themselves. It’s an incredibly toxic mentality.”
Catherine Gao ’20, a Chinese-American student who was raised in an affluent, predominantly East Asian community, said that many in her community felt that affirmative action hurt Asian-Americans and benefited other groups at their expense. Gao maintained, however, that “we can call out Harvard’s mistakes without attacking affirmative action.” She argued that aspects of the Harvard admissions process, such as its personality scoring system, overlook disparities within the Asian-American community and perpetuate the model minority stereotype.
“I feel like affirmative action is really important and helpful, not just for Asian-Americans, but for people of color in general,” Gao said. “It needs to be kept in for educational equity.”
Some students said they are skeptical about the motivations for the lawsuit.
“I feel like many of these plaintiffs, who are parents, are angry about the admissions outcome for their children,” Phan said.
As for Students for Fair Admissions, the organization representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Gao felt uneasy about its intentions. “SFA is led by conservative advocates who have had a history of lodging lawsuits against colleges with the intent of getting affirmative action struck down on behalf of white students. Now, they’re using Asian-American students, instead of white students, to achieve their goal. Because of their history, I’m pretty distrustful of them ‘representing’ the AAPI community.”
The man behind Students for Fair Admissions, Edward Blum, is a politically conservative activist who has orchestrated numerous lawsuits challenging affirmative action in the past, including the landmark Fisher v. University of Texas case, in which the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions and even pointed to Harvard’s admissions as a example of constitutional affirmative action.
“I actually agree with a lot of the points made by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit,” said Terence Zhao ‘19, a Chinese-American student from Arcadia, CA, who is also an op-ed writer for The Daily. “It’s not affirmative action that’s at fault here; it’s the idea of ‘creating a diverse class’ that is hurting Asian Americans. Affirmative action accounts for socioeconomic disparity, which is a good thing, and while it’s not a perfect system, we shouldn’t get rid of it. Rather, it’s this bullshit about the need to ‘create a diverse class’ – with white people maintained as a plurality – that is leading to a sort of racial quota preventing more Asian-Americans from getting admitted into elite universities.”
While many Asian-American students at Stanford spoke in support of affirmative action and were generally critical of the lawsuit, some students sympathized with the plaintiffs.
“I just think that, if an Asian-American applicant who worked their ass off to get excellent grades and SAT scores and doesn’t get a seat at elite universities because of something they couldn’t control – their race – and that less qualified but black and Hispanic people get in, that’s just completely unfair,” said a Bay Area Chinese-American student who requested anonymity to speak about the case and its implications. “To me, this should be merit-based more than anything.”
Reactions to Stanford filing the amicus brief were also mixed. Whereas Phan and Gao were supportive of Stanford taking a stand in support of race-conscious admissions, Zhao considered it “expected behavior for a university like Stanford” and unimportant in the long run. On the other hand, the anonymous Bay Area student said they viewed the amicus brief negatively.
“What can you do about it?” they asked. “[Harvard] will choose students however they want to choose [them], and Asians will just have to figure out how to beat the odds.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Terence Zhao ’19 meant to refer to a “plurality” of white people, not a “majority” as previously written.
A previous version of this article applied an inaccurate gender pronoun to Huanvy Phan ‘20. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Sean Lee at seanklee ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sammy Mohammed at sammym ‘at’ stanford.edu.