Expert Witnesses in the Harvard Discrimination Lawsuit Arrive At Conflicting Conclusions

Victoria Negron

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— Updated on December 8, 2021

Expert Witnesses in the Harvard Discrimination Lawsuit Arrive At Conflicting Conclusions

A lawsuit alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants has officially gone to trial as of Monday October 15, 2018. In spite of the parties’ attempts to resolve the matter by summary judgment, District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs determined that the suit will see the Boston Federal Courthouse after the expert witnesses from both sides arrived at conflicting statistical conclusions.

The Proceedings

The suit was first initiated in 2014 by an anti-affirmative action advocacy group by the name of Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA). The allegations propose that for many academically qualified Harvard applicants, race is the determinative factor for admission, and that Harvard’s undergraduate admissions decisions exhibit a particular bias against Asian-American applicants.

Beginning in June, the plaintiff and Harvard University outlined their arguments in court filings. Both sides retained highly qualified experts in economics to run statistical models of the university’s admissions data between the years 2014-2019.

Peter Arcidiacono, PhD, the expert witness hired by the Students for Fair Admissions, is a professor of Economics at Duke University who has published numerous peer-reviewed articles on issues of race/ethnicity and admissions decisions in higher education. Harvard’s expert witness, David Card, PhD, is a professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley whose research publications focus on labor economics, particularly questions related to discrimination in various contexts, including education. Also noteworthy is the hefty compensation that each expert received for their respective reports. Prof. Arcidiacono has been compensated $450 per hour by the SFFA and Prof. Card has been compensated $750 per hour by Harvard for his services.

Seven-hundred pages of expert and rebuttal reports later, the experts each firmly maintained their stance that the university does or does not racially discriminate against applicants.

The SFFA’s Claims

Prof. Arcidiacono’s expert report claimed that the subjective factors Harvard considers in evaluating applicants, particularly ratings of personal qualities assigned to students, disadvantage Asian-American applicants. Harvard assigns applicants scores in five categories: academic, athletic, extracurricular achievement, personal qualities, and an overall rating. The personal rating includes assessments of whether a student has a positive personality, is widely respected, or has qualities such as likeability, courage, and grit. Asian Americans, by the SFFA’s analysis, consistently receive the lowest score of any racial group on the personal rating, despite rating higher, on average, than any other racial group in the academic and extracurricular categories.

The SFFA further claims that Asian high achievers have lower rates of admission. Prof. Arcidiacono’s analysis claimed that Asian-Americans applicants to Harvard have, on average, the highest academic credentials, with an average SAT score 24.9 points higher than white applicants, 153.9 points higher than Hispanic applicants, and 217.7 points higher than African-American applicants. The report also claimed that Asian-Americans would comprise 43% of the annual incoming class (more than double their current share) if Harvard relied on an admissions model that considered only academic factors.

Prof. Arcidiacono concluded that Harvard imposes a specific penalty against Asian Americans that significantly impacts their probability of admission. The report presents an example “average” Asian applicant who, based on their test scores and Harvard ratings, has a 25% chance of admission. Prof. Arcidiacono argues that the statistical models demonstrate this applicant would have a 30% chance of admission if they were treated like a white female applicant and a 36% chance if they were treated like a white male applicant.

Harvard’s Claims

Prof. Card’s expert report was largely dismissive of SFFA’s claims. His analysis defended Harvard’s mission to review applications holistically and admit “multi-dimensional” candidates, stating, “there is a critical flaw in SFFA’s reasoning…. Harvard’s admissions process values many dimensions of excellence, not just prior academic achievement.”

Prof. Card pointed out that 4 of the 6 regression models that Prof. Arcidiacono offered did not include controls for the non-academic metrics Harvard uses to rate candidates: extracurricular, personal, and athletic. In addition, Prof. Card claimed that the SFFA’s report did not sufficiently account for critical admissions factors such as high school quality, economic disadvantage, and personal adversity — qualities which make an applicant “multi-dimensional.” He concluded that “multi-dimensional” candidates have the highest admission rate at Harvard and compose a much larger share of the admitted class.

The report also criticized Prof. Arcidiacono’s demonstration of an “average” Asian applicant as fundamentally flawed and unreliable. Prof. Card stated that Arcidiacono cherry-picked the single Asian-American applicant for which a hypothetical change of race would have had the largest effect, rendering his argument. He maintained that once Prof. Arcidiacono’s model is modified to account for these additional factors, it finds no evidence of a racial disparity in admissions decisions.

Two Disparate Expert Analyses: So Who Is “Correct”?

The disparity in report findings can largely be attributed to the discretionary choices the experts were required to make as a result of being given such a vast quantity of admissions data. Harvard released 6 years of admissions data, including some 160,000 applications to resolve this matter. Of course, completing an expert report on this data that wouldn’t take the courts years to read requires a level of omission and makes it possible to frame a statistical analysis that supports either side. It’s therefore unsurprising that the experts arrived at two completely different conclusions and exceedingly likely that there is truth to the analyses of each report. Ultimately, it will be up to the Federal Court to decide whether or not Harvard employed discriminatory practices in its admissions process.

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