Lawsuit Against Harvard Admissions

Haven’t had much time to post here recently, largely because of travel — in order, China, Chicago, LA, Vancouver BC and Eugene OR. There have been no new developments on the H-1B work visa or other topics that I like to comment on.

However, there is another topic of keen interest to me, Affirmative Action (AA), both in general and especially in college admissions. I’m a strong supporter of AA from way back, so I’ve been quite interested in the lawsuit being brought against Harvard, claiming the latter’s admissions process discriminates against Asian-American applicants. (Actually, none of the plaintiffs is Asian, but there are some Asian groups, mainly Chinese-immigrant STEM professionals, supporting the suit.)

In my view, the plaintiffs’ arguments are uninformed, misleading and fallacious. Thus I’ve written a Web page, titled “A Statistician Looks at Affirmative Action in College Admissions,” taking a careful look at the issues. I invite you to take a look, and let me know your comments.

44 thoughts on “Lawsuit Against Harvard Admissions

  1. Hi Norm. Busy you do sound. Let me try to make two brief comments, one on your page, and the other on the issues.

    The page strikes me as rambling and discursive, for something purporting to make statistical points. Amusingly, the points all sound like lessons couched in data science terms, trying desperately to tell people that data requires a relationship to something real in the world, or it is just a pile of numbers. True enough, but that’s such a basic point, people intereted in some specific topic like AA are just going to scratch their heads at it. And I think they are right. This comes down to a statistician telling them not to use statistics because it’s just a pile of numbers. They will not know what you are talking about.

    Now, on the lawsuit and AA and university admissions. Well. I have my own views on this, politically, and having gone through the tests and admissions, and also having worked for the med school’s admissions office for five years, running all their ranking reports, etc. Back in the old days, to be sure. All these arguments sound familiar, there is nothing new under the sun. On the one hand I’m pretty sure I would never get into Stanford today, they’d take a left-handed penta-sexual Chinese ice skater instead.

    And so, you and Harvard agree, numbers are dissatisfiers – if you are at least standard strong then something else is needed to stand out, and standard strong is so boring that they feel obligated by the broadest ideas of diversity, to take some who fail that criterion. Here’s the thing Norm, that is not a rationally defensibile position. You are going to throw out some good candidates, for some bad candidates, because of XYZ. That’s going to tick off some good candidates, who worked hard for their standard strong. Arguably it violates any possible AA law. I’ve never seen a law that said, “This law applies to 90% of citizens, and for the other 10%, whatever.” However this is how college admissions was being done 50 years ago as well as today.

    I think it comes down to, “Things are more like they’ve always been than they ever were.” AA laws destroy the basis for such judgments. I believe the AA laws, and some supreme court judgments in the 1960s about de facto and de jure, that I cannot seem to find by Googling the Interwebs, are the WORST SOCIAL MISTAKE in American history because it cannot possibly succeed, and the Harvard lawsuit is exactly what one must expect from such laws and policies. It is an attempt to legislate – that numbers are bunk, except for MY numbers on what you must have. It imposes a non-rational process on decisions, it claims that some power on high is more important than rationality. And that is what every student, every citizen, hears in the discussion – someone in a robe is going to decide this and I don’t even have a right to argue.

    And that’s a position some people might embrace. But it doesn’t leave a lot of room for data science. Ultimately it doesn’t leave a lot of room for democracy, either. Let’s rip up the constitution, I guess that’s bunk, too.


    • I did anticipate that some would say I’m trying to couch nonstatistical issues into an ostensibly statistical document. I do claim, though, that the data quality issues are statistical. I’d certainly have said a lot more if not constraining the document to the quantitative.


    • “That’s going to tick off some good candidates, who worked hard for their standard strong.”
      A strong whiff of entitlement there, blended with the misconception of admission being based on academic merit alone.


  2. EEO/Affirmative Action was a tough call, during discussions in college decades ago.
    I generically understood starting from a few steps back, but wasn’t crazy about the idea of being hired solely because I was female.
    Some years later, I watched a young guy literally following his mother’s footsteps, through the snow, into work, and it finally dawned on me, his incredible advantage having two parents in engineering. Assistance with setting the goal of going to college, two mentors through his college courses, in knowing where there were openings in their companies and in passing in his resume at their jobs. That is some mighty leg up.


  3. I’m faculty at an interior red-state flagship university. My own son was denied acceptance into the Ivies a few years back despite perfect SAT’s and a good record of activities. I’m an American-born Asian and the mom is white. I wasn’t surprised as I knew about this type of discrimination. The mom was shocked and aghast and so were European colleagues who insist this stuff doesn’t go one in the home countries. I wasn’t too worried as the son is in a STEM field and it’s where you to to grad school that’s important. He’s doing well now.

    He wasn’t SAT coached or Tiger Mom-ed and I encourage freedom of thought and development. I can assure you we live a strictly middle-class life driving 10+-y.o. cars and lived in a $120,000 home when the boys were growing up. I make less that you might think in a state that doesn’t support higher-ed all that well. I think the present system of college admissions is a horrible mess. One of the big problems is that seats at the elite universities haven’t really expanded to keep up with population increases. I’m not supporting this lawsuit as I frequently comment to the leaders of this movement that there’s enough wealth in the Asian population to create our own universities.

    That said, I’m not a big fan of AA in the present form as it seems that the population it seeks to help haven’t benefitted. There’s indicators that it’s hurt those to seeks to help.


    • I’ve seen some of those “indicators,” and they seemed to be biased and cherry-picked. I’d say that overall (not just in schools), AA has been a big success.

      There is more than wealth involved in terms of bringing up kids who are successful in school.

      You seem to place a much higher value on the SATs than I do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • With AA, I’m swayed by this report:

        Insofar as SAT’s I’ve had NMS undergrads in my lab. They’re were spectacular. I’ve had students with 1100’s SAT’s, they’re hit or miss about 50/50. Out of that latter bunch I had a kid publish a couple of papers with me, go to a good grad school and is doing well 15 years later. He was a white kid whose single father worked at a factory. The elites would have never even considered him. SAT’s measure something, I think I would happier with subject exams like, math, science and English.

        I’m not a fan of the beauty contest that is the admissions process to the elite universities. I’m pretty happy working with kids from lower middle class background from all the races. The elites tend to admit those from privileged economic status. So, I’m not quite sure where you’re getting the idea that Asians should get lower personality scores because they’re coming from comfortable upper and middle class backgrounds. I think your impressions are skewed by living in CA. Out here in my state, the Asian kids in my lab had parents working 80-100 hours a week in small businesses like Chinese buffets.


        • You’ve made a lot of comments. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to reply in detail, nor the space in this forum. So I’ll keep it brief.

          The white kid in your example would be of high interest to the elite schools, given his background, assuming he is otherwise strong.

          The data show that most of the Asian applicants to Harvard do come from well-off families. But even the working-class ones grew up with a huge family emphasis on education, that among things developed in them excellent “academic street smarts.”

          I never said the SAT is worthless. On the contrary, my position has long been that the top schools should admit via lottery, with the pool being those who score above a certain threshold in numerics such as the SAT. And I’ve never agreed with the claims that the SAT is culturally biased.


          • My writings on affirmative action have been only on college admissions, not the workplace. I’ve said I consider the workplace a different situation, in which I support AA but for which the goals in terms of national interest are rather different. However, in terms of the national interest, I believe a college admissions lottery (with threshold, as I’ve explained) is definitely in the national interest, as is focusing H-1B and green cards on “the best and the brightest.”


    • “My own son was denied acceptance into the Ivies a few years back despite perfect SAT’s and a good record of activities.”
      Just how many people do you think can claim this exact same thing?
      “That said, I’m not a big fan of AA in the present form as it seems that the population it seeks to help haven’t benefitted.”
      “One of the big problems is that seats at the elite universities haven’t really expanded to keep up with population increases.”
      which they’ve no intention of changing as it’d dilute their prestige?


      • I guess you missed my points
        -Asian-Americans are in a position to create new universities. Those are where the new seats should come from.
        -In STEM going to a decent state U is just fine, it’s grad school that counts for more.

        Harvard can go one being Harvard, a hedge fund with lots of contributions from the taxpayer with a decent U attached to it.


  4. Don’t we need to know the racial makeup of the people making the “hiring” decision? What if a Chinese-American Harvard official rejects a Chinese-American applicant in favor of someone else?

    I had a Physics 2 professor who required students to only include their SSN on the tests. He did not say why. I guess it might have been to eliminate bias. The test was not multiple choice. This same professor gave us a surprise physics test on the first day of class! One student yelled, “Hey, this isn’t MIT!”.

    Can’t the college remove the student’s name from the application? I think Harvard requires an in person interview, so my suggestion is of limited use.

    Your mention of the Coaching Services reminded me of the movie “Stand and Deliver” with actor Edward James Olmos as high school math teacher Jaime Escalante.

    Congrats on your award. This might explain your trip to Vancouver.


    • I’m not sure what your point is in your example about a Chinese admissions officer rejecting a Chinese applicant. Please explain.

      Thanks re the award. Yes, it was presented in Vancouver, but I would have attended that conference anyway.


  5. Sorry for the confusion. If a Chinese-American applicant realizes that that he/she was rejected by a Chinese-American Harvard official, then perhaps the applicant will be less likely to accuse Harvard of discrimination.


  6. Of course, if you’re going to ignore the fundamental issues of whether or not AA is actually appropriate, any numbers look good. This is philosophy 101. You can’t just apply numbers to fallacious arguments (universities should accept less qualified individuals due to race) and make it work somehow.


  7. Dr. Matoff I am surprised to hear there is nothing new about H1B you want to comment on.

    However, if you look at this video, one of the top H1B Shysters thinks there is:

    She claims Indians are the “victims” of discrimination.:)

    It seems like a lot has changed since Trump too over.


    • I mostly disagree with Ms. Murthy that the Indians are being singled out. The clampdown has been on the outsourcing firms (“Infosyses”), and it happens that they are mainly Indian. It doesn’t follow that they are being discriminated against.

      However, I do say that the campaign against the outsourcing firms is unfair, and much more importantly, misleading and counterproductive. The mainstream firms abuse the visa just as much as the outsourcing firms do, and focusing on the latter firms will allow Congress to “appear to solve the problem but NOT solve it at all.” I’ve also often called out people and organizations that are critical of H-1B yet actually make things WORSE by emphasizing the outsourcing firms. Note the word “WORSE.”

      So far (and I don’t expect things to change), I’d give Trump a C+ on the H-1B issue. In 2015 he too bought into the false notion that the mainstream firms, whose H-1Bs are mainly foreign students hired from US universities, use the visa responsibly, and has been consistent on that ever since. Again, I blame many on our side of the issue for contributing to that false view.

      An interesting but very little-known example is that the Trump administration exempted the outsourcing firms if their H-1Bs are foreign students.


    • USCIS was not vetting
      – credentials
      – job tasks as “specialty”
      and they now are.
      Because the majority of H1Bs are from India, then yes, she is likely to see them as “victims” of discrimination, though she appears to not see citizens displaced using H1B as “victims” of discrimination.


    • Postings to the forum sponsored by her firm are quite informative – and not in a good way. Even though it is moderated, there are numerous postings about fraudulent and illegal activities. I guess it is because of her perception that her clients are not being treated fairly that “anything goes.”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. So, it sounds like you are saying that ALL the scrutiny is going to outsourcers and somehow USCIS is “shielding” non-outsourcer H1B dependent companies from RFEs and NTAs.

    Is there any evidence that USCIS deliberately NOT scrutinizing the extension of H1Bs across the board?


  9. I am a Latina with a CS. I purposely avoided the Ivy League schools because I understood the affiliation would hurt me more than it would help. Even though my grades were always great, I knew the stigma of AA would follow me if I availed myself of it. Instead, I opted for open admissions at CUNY where every high school graduate is guaranteed a seat. I never regretted my decision.

    Employment wise I found that employers care more about the type of degree you have, a CS was always a HUGH plus, and the courses you took. My applied math track was always a winner. I manage to get hired at premiere financial institutions and consulting firms, once there your degree doesn’t matter anymore, only performance counts.

    Overall, I am totally apathetic to AA. I would rather go where the rules of admission are clear. If the goal is education, you can get that at any institution. If the goal is social affiliation, than the school can pick anybody they want for any reason, affiliation is what they are really offering.


  10. It is sad that there is the perception that attending an Ivy League university is essential to success. There are many reasons students qualified cannot or choose not to attend.

    My child who was admitted but had to attend elsewhere due to the cost. He graduated from top 100 for both BS and MS. Geography determined his choice. Several years ago his quarterly performance bonus equaled his PhD holding (from a top 10) sibling’s academic year salary.

    Another child attend a top 20. I was upset that one of his basic science classes had over 200 students; his friend at Harvard reported 1000 in his econ class. Why would any student want to go some place where no one knows your name. Money isn’t everything or people would not go into teaching.

    Following that report my younger child chose another non-Ivy university, small liberal arts college where the class sizes were typically 15 to 20 but were as small as 4, 5 and 8. At graduation, I found out that the wife of the university president knew her by name since she was very involved on campus – and played with their cat when it was out and carried dog treats in her backpack for her prof’s service dog.

    I know person Ivy League degrees who abuse his spouses and is unable to hold a job. I have a relative with an MBA from an Ivy business school whose inability to solve basic life’s challenges even with information provided to her by and encouragement from others boggles my mind. An Ivy League degree does not guarantee that the person has character or common sense.

    I guess it depends on the definition of “success.” Some of the most talented and smartest people I have known have not graduated from college. They were the ones I went to for help solving technical problems and with whom I have had the most enjoyable discussions on life.

    For me the most important thing to a person’s success in college and life afterwards is to match his choices to the individual’s personality and goals. It is sad that there is the perception that a person is more qualified than another simply based on where (s)he attended school.


        • The perception in popular culture is that some of the most successful tech companies were founded largely by college dropouts: Microsoft, Apple, Oracle Amazon and Facebook to name a few.

          As you have pointed out, STEM careers at best last about 7-8 years before the degree holders become hard-core unemployable.

          In that sense, it make perfect sense to skip college and start a business.

          Everyone in America wants to go to college and get the “Dream Job”. However, universities have the reputation of being pretty bad about producing people who start those companies that produce these jobs.

          What is studied is the amount he is paying – $200K over two years.

          Someone needs to remind Peter that you can start a landscaping or pool cleaning business and make more that that your first year out!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s