AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A treasure trove of documents about Harvard University's admission process is revealing secrets about how America's oldest university selects its students. A federal court has unsealed hundreds of admissions applications and documents in recent weeks as part of a lawsuit alleging the university discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The court papers shed light on how the university considers an applicant's socioeconomic status, race or personality to give preference on who gets in. The lawsuit could have important implications for affirmative action.
And joining us now to discuss what we're learning from these new documents is Anemona Hartocollis from The New York Times. Welcome.
ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS: Thank you, Ailsa.
CHANG: So you've been poring through all of these documents produced by Harvard University about its admissions process. I'm curious. What struck you as particularly damning for the university's case? Was there anything?
HARTOCOLLIS: Yes. I and two of my colleagues have read hundreds of documents. And one of the things that has stood out for me is something that Harvard calls lopping, which according to the court papers takes place at the end of the admissions process when the admissions office looks at the racial balance of the class and adjusts it.
CHANG: So race is the determinative factor for who gets lopped from the list at the very end?
HARTOCOLLIS: Well, that's a good question. I think that that's what the plaintiffs want to find out.
CHANG: There was this other phrase that came up, and that was tipping or to tip. What does that mean?
HARTOCOLLIS: A tip, as I discovered through a document in the files - a Department of Education investigation in the late '80s - is a preference. And it is given to certain categories of applicants according to the plaintiffs. And those would include racial and ethnic minorities and kids whose parents graduated from Harvard and recruited athletes among others.
CHANG: Though at the end of the day, Harvard admits some around 2,000 students per year. And if you look at the academic records of the students applying, it's pretty overwhelming. There are way more than 2,000 applicants year after year who have perfect SAT scores and straight A's. So Harvard can't let them all in either. They - it does need to have other criteria to select students. I guess - does this fight come down to whether Harvard is using the correct criteria?
HARTOCOLLIS: I think it comes down to whether Harvard is misusing its criteria. I think Harvard probably has a large degree of discretion. The Supreme Court has ruled that universities have a large degree of discretion in deciding whom to admit but that they cannot treat different groups in a disparate way. And the charge here is that Asians are being treated differently because of their race from everybody else.
CHANG: And what is Harvard's best argument to that?
HARTOCOLLIS: First of all, Harvard strenuously denies any discrimination and says that its admissions system is a carefully calibrated way of curating an ideal class that will help shape the future of a pluralistic society in America.
CHANG: Anemona Hartocollis covers higher education for The New York Times. Thanks very much for joining us.
HARTOCOLLIS: You're welcome, Ailsa.
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