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Justice Department Sides Against Harvard In Racial Discrimination Lawsuit


President Trump's administration signaled which side it's on in a lawsuit against Harvard University. The suit has been filed on behalf of Asian-American applicants for admission. They say Harvard discriminated against them as part of its admissions process, and their suit is being seen as a challenge to affirmative action more broadly. Now the Justice Department has filed a brief, as the government can, arguing in support of the plaintiffs. Kirk Carapezza of Boston member station WGBH is on the line. He's covering this story. Good morning.

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the Harvard admissions practice that's at the heart of this lawsuit?

CARAPEZZA: Steve, this lawsuit's brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, and they've accused Harvard of systematically ranking Asian-American applicants much lower on intangible characteristics like courage, kindness and leadership. They've also accused the college of capping the number of qualified Asian-American applicants from attending the school. Now, Steve...

INSKEEP: Let's just be clear on this. Harvard does actually use those intangible characteristics like courage or kindness? They do factor those things in when they're deciding who to let in?

CARAPEZZA: Yeah. This lawsuit did shed some light on Harvard's admissions practices. I think it's important to point out that this same group, Students for Fair Admissions, is led by a conservative strategist, Edward Blum, and he's filed suits against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin. But in those previous cases, he said that white students are at a disadvantage in college admissions.

INSKEEP: Ah, OK. So we have a group here that has a broader objection...


INSKEEP: ...To affirmative action.

CARAPEZZA: Yeah. This group and other conservatives, they all want Harvard and other selective schools to drop race-conscious admissions altogether.

INSKEEP: OK, so what does Harvard say in explanation for the way that it approaches things and how it does treat Asian-Americans?

CARAPEZZA: The university is denying all of these charges. It says, race is considered; it's just one factor weighed against a number of other factors, like what your parents do or your hometown or your class or, you know, whether you can turn a double play or you've got a good jump shot. Harvard also points out that Asian-Americans now account for about 23 percent of all admitted students. And in a statement yesterday, the university said it's deeply disappointed that the Justice Department has taken the side of the plaintiff in this case. And the brief really surprised absolutely no one in higher education since the Trump administration has already repealed Obama-era regulations - or guidelines on the consideration of race in admissions. And many are telling me that they see this as just a Trojan horse to end affirmative action.

INSKEEP: Two things to deal with very quickly - first, the Justice Department brief. In essence, they argue that Harvard has to have a lot of evidence on its side in order to consider race at all and it didn't meet its burden. That's the Justice Department argument. But the other question is, who is harmed here? Are these plaintiffs - this group that opposes affirmative action - are they going to be able to show in court that there were actual Asian-Americans who were harmed in some way?

CARAPEZZA: That's unclear. I got an email from Edward Blum earlier this week, and I asked him - I said, you know, where are these students? Who's speaking out on this? Is there a face for your case here? And he said that, at this point, no Asian-American students are prepared to take the stand and testify when this case goes to trial in October.

INSKEEP: No Asian-Americans? Not one is willing to say, I was harmed by this policy?

CARAPEZZA: Not publicly. And as a reporter, it's a tough story to tell because we've asked a number of Asian-American groups whether they can introduce us to a student, and they haven't been able to come forward. A lot of civil rights groups are backing Harvard, including Asian-American civil rights groups.

INSKEEP: Kirk, thanks very much.

CARAPEZZA: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Kirk Carapezza of WGBH. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, connecting the dots between post-secondary education and the economy, national security, jobs and global competitiveness. Kirk has been a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis.; a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad. Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway. You can follow Kirk on Twitter @KirkCarapezza.