Searching for veritas at Harvard

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Veritas, Latin for “truth”, is the motto of America’s oldest and arguably most famous university, Harvard. The motto, presumably signifying a place that seeks truth in matters scientific and philosophical, has special meaning for Harvard these days with a Federal court in Boston hearing a case on discrimination in its admission process.

The case was brought by an anti-affirmative action group called Students for Fair Admissions. The plaintiffs are alleging that the Harvard admission process discriminates against Asian Americans in a way that violates the law. For instance, for identical scores on SATs, an aptitude test for undergraduate admissions, the plaintiffs argued that Asian Americans were less likely to get into Harvard than students of other racial groups. The Harvard Crimson, the campus daily, analysed admissions data from 1995 to 2013 and found that despite having the highest average SAT scores of any ethnic group, Asian Americans had the lowest acceptance rate of all groups.

Also under scrutiny is a five-year-old report from Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research. The study found that the proportion of Asian Americans in an admitted class fell from 43% to 26% when factors like athletics, extracurricular activities, personality and legacy (children of alums) were considered. This proportion dropped to 36% when just athletics and legacy factors were considered. When, in addition to grades, personality (subjective criteria like humility, likeability and sense of humour) and extracurricular activities are considered, the proportion in the freshers’ class of every group (White, Hispanic, Black) went up except for Asian Americans.

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