On Campus, News

Deans Discuss Harvard Admissions Lawsuit

A panel of three Boston College deans explored the admissions lawsuit against Harvard University, how it relates to BC, and its general significance in higher education on Feb. 24. Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard in 2014, saying that the school’s undergraduate admissions process discriminates against Asian American applicants.

The “Race, Class, and Ethnicity in College Admissions” panel featured Dean of the Connell School of Nursing Susan Gennaro, Dean of BC Law Vincent Rougeau, and Dean of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development Stanton Wortham. The event was hosted by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center. 

Led by legal strategist Edward Blum, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) represents several Asian American students who were rejected from Harvard, according to The New York Times. Last October, Massachusetts U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs rejected SFFA’s claim of bias and ruled Harvard’s system constitutional. SFFA filed an appeal of the ruling on Feb. 18.

All three of the speakers at the panel emphasized the benefits of diversity within the college environment. Being surrounded by people from various backgrounds can not only reduce stereotypes, enhance campus climate, and reduce harassment, but it can also create empathy within people, Wortham said. 

“One of the critical goals for education is the development of vision, and by vision, I mean the capacity to see things in a fundamentally new way,” Wortham said. “It seems to me that diversity, in a broad sense, is crucial.”

Rougeau said that elite private institutions have a broad social obligation to promote and implement diversity. Public institutions, he said, have an even deeper responsibility for diversity because state governments created them to serve the broader public. 

“What we’re really talking about is access to privilege and who gets it and why,” Rougeau said. “It’s a lot easier to attack recently arrived minorities [for] these privileges than it is to deal with legacy admissions, or to deal with the athletic powerhouse that drives so much of what we do in higher education.”

The speakers discussed the many factors outside of race that play a role in the admissions process. These factors, such as legacy and education prior to college, are being overlooked, the deans said.

The educational opportunities available from kindergarten through 12th grade have a big influence on whether students have an advantage in their education or if they are kept behind, Wortham said.

“There’s differential access to quality academic preparation, differential access to money, and differential access to information. … It shapes who has an opportunity to get into and through the system,” Wortham said.

“[Colleges] have always shaped their classes as they saw fit,” Rougeau said. “The elite institutions decide on their own what kind of classes they want. It is not some kind of social contract. They can do what they want.”

Rougeau said that, in the mid-1900s, Yale and other Ivy League colleges introduced quotas on the number of accepted Jewish applicants. Quotas are now illegal in the admissions process, but the race of an applicant can be considered as a factor.

Vice Provost for Enrollment Management John Mahoney, who was also in attendance, said that new technologies are being developed that help to create an unbiased assessment of applicants. Mahoney mentioned a new development called Landscape that the College Board, the distributor of the SAT tests, is piloting.

The technology examines real estate values, the number of AP courses available at high schools, average test scores, and many other factors, according to Mahoney. It assesses how the students are performing within their specific environment, rather than evaluating them among other applicants from vastly different backgrounds. Mahoney said that BC hopes to use Landscape, for it appears quite promising.

The deans also discussed the rising costs of higher education. Gennaro said that although universities are nonprofit, they must meet some economic standard that is easiest met by increasing tuition. 

Rougeau pointed out that even as the prices rise, the applications keep coming in droves.

“There is no incentive right now for colleges, especially elite colleges, to cut the cost,” Rougeau said. “Because you’re satisfying demand.”

March 8, 2020