New York: In a case that has echoes of the college admissions reservations issue in India, a federal judge has ruled against students of Indian and other Asian descent in a lawsuit alleging that Harvard University was discriminating against them in its admissions policy and favouring other ethnicities.
Judge Allison Burroughs ruled on Tuesday that the Ivy League university's admissions policy was not motivated by "racial animus or conscious prejudice" against Asians and that it was meant to promote racial diversity.
Although race-based quotas similar to the caste-based reservations in India are illegal under previous court rulings, universities like Harvard have tried to get around the ban by giving greater weight to criteria other than the common entrance test scores in which Asians score very high to effectively limit their numbers.
Affirmative action programmes that favour minorities previously discriminated against were legal as long as they used race-neutral criterion like economic status.
President Donald Trump's administration backed the Asians in court, saying, "No American should be denied admission to school because of their race."
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) brought the case on behalf of high-performing Asian students who alleged that Harvard discriminates against them on the basis of their race.
But Burroughs said in her ruling, "The use of race benefits certain racial and ethnic groups that would otherwise be underrepresented at Harvard and is therefore neither an illegitimate use of race or reflective of racial prejudice."
Harvard's admissions policy applies only to students who are citizens or residents of the US as the universities use a different set of criteria in selecting foreign students.
SFFA President Edward Blum said in a statement that it would appeal the ruling and take it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. He said, "We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard's systematic discrimination against Asian-American applicants."
Harvard President Lawrence Bacow welcomed the ruling saying, "We reaffirm the importance of diversity and everything it represents to the world."
About 20 per cent of the undergraduate students at Harvard are Asian even though they together make up only about six per cent of the US population. Their numbers would have soared had only academics had been the main consideratio.
During the trial it was revealed that Harvard rated applicants on academic, extracurricular, personal and athletic criteria and also considered race and ethnicity.
An academic expert who analysed Harvard's admissions records on behalf of SFFA found that it consistently rated Asians lower on "positive personality," and as less "widely respected."
The dean of Harvard College, which enrols undergraduates and was at the heart of the case, is Rakesh Khurana. Apart from the case, the federal Department of Education is investigating a complaint by 64 Asian organisations about discrimination against Asians at Harvard.
Global Organisation of Persons of Indian Origin (Gopio), National Federation of Indian-American Associations, American Society of Engineers of Indian Origin, and BITS Sindri Alumni Association of North India were among the groups that jointly filed the federal complaint.
The complaint said: "Many Asian-American students who have almost perfect SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test, a common entrance exam) scores, top one per cent GPAs (Grade Point Average), plus significant awards or leadership positions in various extracurricular activities have been rejected by Harvard University and other Ivy League Colleges while similarly situated applicants of other races have been admitted."
Although the programmes for diversity at many universities are presented as progressive efforts to help historically oppressed minorities like African Americans and Latinos, it is the Whites who actually benefit at the expense of the Asians.
A study by a Princeton University academic found that to gain admission to elite universities, Asian-American students had to score 140 points more than whites in the SAT.
-By Arul Louis