Arguments Over How to Prove Racial Bias Drive Final Day at Harvard Trial

Arguments Over How to Prove Racial Bias Drive Final Day at Harvard Trial

Motivated by racial animus, concluding a high-profile trial whose outcome could have been higher education.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, a non-profit group called Students for Fair Admissions, said in closing statements that any evidence of Harvard's admissions officers deploying implicit bias against Asian-American complainants.

"We do not have to prove a racist cabal," said John Hughes, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who said "even well-meaning people are susceptible to employ" stereotypes.

The plaintiffs' lawyers said "false stereotypes" about Asian-Americans being "shy and reserved" were reflected in Asian-American ones receiving consistently lower scores on a Harvard admissions metric as the personal rating compared with applicants of other races. The personal rating assesses the applicant's personal qualities, including kindness and leadership.

Harvard's lawyers said to prove intentional discrimination, plaintiffs had to show admissions officers motivated by "racial animus" and deliberately sought a discriminatory result. The school says the plaintiffs failed to show that.

Harvard, which has denied allegations of discrimination, said it does not consider race in the personal rating. It said that the Asian-American applicants as a group were weaker in certain areas, such as teacher recommendations and alumni interviews, when compared with white applicants.

Friday's closing statement concluded a three-week bench trial, which is expected to have no outcome, possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawsuit against Harvard, filed in 2014, which led by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, who has launched other challenges to race-based affirmative action.

Harvard's admissions process has always been shrouded in secrecy, but a recent lawsuit is the veil to be lifted. The WSJ's Nicole Hong and Melissa Korn. Photo: Getty Images.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs is likely to issue a written ruling next year.

The case laid bare of the deepest divisions in America socioeconomic status, geographic region and race. As details trickled out about Harvard's admissions preferences for groups such as legacies and children of donors, the trial turned into a debate about how college students' merit should be defined.

Friday's closing arguments focused on a central question: Does Harvard's admissions process impose an illegal penalty on Asian-American applicants because of their race?

Harvard's lawyers said no, the institution's data showed there was a slight, positive effect on the likelihood of admission for Asian Americans. Both sides therefore agreed Harvard did not racially discriminate against Asian American legacies. And Harvard says it gives preference to low-income applicants of all races, including Asian Americans.

"If there is discriminatory animus," said William Lee, a lawyer for Harvard, "why would it be directed to certain categories of Asian-American applicants?"

The plaintiffs' lawyers said it was possible to discriminate against a group's subset, such as being pregnant on the basis of their sex.

Harvard's own internal reports from 2013 have been closed. They said Harvard's admissions dean ignored those conclusions and failed to investigate further, which they called evidence of intentional discrimination. Harvard said those reports were preliminary and incomplete.

Harvard has not yet given a clear statement on how to weigh race. Harvard says admissions officers receive extensive training.

In new guidelines released recently, Harvard gave more detailed written directions to admissions officers, including an explanation that should not be considered in the personal rating.

During closing statements, each side made thinly veiled accusations of racism against the other.

Harvard, which showed several applicant files at trial, criticized Students for Fair Admission for failing to present any application files of Asian-American plaintiffs. Mr. Lee said Mr. Blum "produced" a lawsuit to advance that effort would ultimately increase the percentage of white students on Harvard's campus.

The plaintiffs accused Harvard of using "model minority" stereotypes against Asian-American applicants. Harvard's economist expert, who said Asian-Americans were more likely to have a "multidimensional advantage" because they were stronger in personal qualities and athletics.

Harvard's lawyers said race is only used as a preference among the most competitive applicants.

If the judge finds Harvard liable on any counts, then she would determine a remedy. Harvard from considering race in future admissions.

Harvard to group them into the same racial box during admissions.

Write to Nicole Hong at nicole.hong@wsj.com

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