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Harvard on Trial: The Lawsuit on Affirmative Action, Explained

BOSTON — Harvard University’s admissions practices are on trial in Federal District Court in Boston, in a lawsuit that could have a broad impact on the way colleges choose their incoming classes.


The trial began on Monday with opening statements by lawyers for the plaintiffs, who accuse Harvard of effectively setting a restrictive quota for the number of Asian-American students it accepts, and for the university, which denies that its admissions practices are discriminatory. Supporters of the two sides held dueling rallies in Boston and on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Mass., on the eve of the trial.


The case is a departure from past challenges to race-conscious admissions, because it argues that a minority group has been unfairly penalized in favor both of whites and of other minority groups. Asian-Americans are divided on the case, with some saying they are being unfairly used as a wedge in a bid to abolish affirmative action.


The court may rule broadly and make new law on the issue, or it may hand down a narrow decision that affects only Harvard. At a minimum, legal experts say, the case will expose the sometimes arcane admissions practices of one of the most selective institutions in the world. William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s longtime dean of admissions, is expected to be among the first witnesses to testify.

法院可能会做出广泛的裁决、并在这个问题上制定新法律,也可能做出只影响哈佛的小范围裁决。法律专家说,至少此案将把世界上最严格挑选学生的机构之一的有时神秘的录取方法显露于世。预计哈佛大学长期负责招生的院长威廉·菲茨西蒙斯(William Fitzsimmons)将作为第一批证人出庭作证。

In opening arguments Monday, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Adam Mortara, asserted that the lawsuit was not against campus diversity.

在周一的开庭陈述中,原告律师亚当·莫塔拉(Adam Mortara)声称,本次诉讼不是反对校园的多元化。

“The future of affirmative action in college admissions is not on trial,” Mr. Mortara said. “This trial is about what Harvard has done and is doing to Asian-American applicants, and how far Harvard has gone in its zeal to use race in the admissions process.”


Harvard’s lawyer, Bill Lee, finished his opening arguments in defense of the university on a personal note. He recalled the first time he had appeared in a federal courtroom, more than 40 years ago. Everyone in the room was male, he said, and they were all white except for him, an Asian-American. “This, of all times, is not a time to go back,” Mr. Lee said.

哈佛大学的律师比尔·李(Bill Lee)以一段个人经历结束了他的开庭陈述。他回忆起40多年前他首次在一个联邦法庭上出庭的情景。他说,房间里的每个人都是男性,而且除了他都是白人,他是亚裔美国人。“现在,无论何时,都不是倒退的时候,”李说。

Here are the basic facts of the case and a look at what’s at stake.


What’s this case about?


The lawsuit accuses Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants.


The plaintiffs say that the university holds Asian-Americans to a higher standard than applicants of other races and resorts to racial balancing to shape its incoming classes, in violation of civil rights law. It does this, the plaintiffs say, by manipulating aspects of its admissions process, especially nonacademic gauges — including a “personal rating” — that are hard to quantify.


Harvard says it does not discriminate against applicants of any race. It has staunchly defended its “holistic” admissions policy, which considers race as one factor among many and has been held up as a model by the Supreme Court. The university makes no secret of its pursuit of a diverse class each year, but denies using racial quotas to achieve it.


But what is it really about?


The case is widely seen as a battle over the future of affirmative action. Race’s role in admissions is being debated at every level in education, from colleges to elite high schools to gifted elementary programs, and all of them will be watching intently for a broad ruling.


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The plaintiffs are trying to eliminate the use of race in the admissions process, and accuse Harvard of not making a good-faith effort to consider race-neutral alternative policies to achieve its goals. Harvard says that it has, and that eliminating race as a factor would cause an unacceptable decline in diversity, which it values as part of its educational mission.


The suit is tailor-made to go to the Supreme Court, and if it does, it could change the face of admissions.


Who are the main parties?


The plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, are a group of Asian-American students who were rejected by Harvard. They are led by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who opposes consideration of race in all aspects of public life. Mr. Blum, 65, was behind two previous landmark cases to reach the Supreme Court: one on the issue of race in admissions at the University of Texas, which he lost; and one contesting key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he won.

原告“大学生公平录取”组织(Students for Fair Admissions)是一群被哈佛大学拒之门外的亚裔学生。他们由保守派活跃分子爱德华·布鲁姆(Edward Blum)领导,布鲁姆反对在公共生活的各个方面考虑种族因素。现年65岁的布鲁姆是以前两起上了最高法院的具有里程碑意义的案子的幕后推手:一起是关于德克萨斯大学录取学生中使用种族的,这起他输了;另一起对1965年的投票权法案的关键部分提出了异议,这起他赢了。

The judge is Allison D. Burroughs, who was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed to the federal bench in 2014. Judge Burroughs was one of several federal judges who delayed or blocked President Trump’s first travel ban, issued in January 2017.

本案的法官是阿利森·D·伯勒斯(Allison D. Burroughs),她是在2014年由巴拉克·奥巴马总统提名为联邦法官的,并得到了确认。伯勒斯是延迟或阻止特朗普总统于2017年1月签署的第一个旅行禁令的几位联邦法官之一。

The defendant is Harvard, but other elite universities, including the rest of the Ivy League schools, have closed ranks in support, filing a joint brief saying that a ruling against Harvard would hurt diversity efforts across academia.


What evidence will be presented?


The plaintiffs have cited preliminary drafts of reports that Harvard itself conducted on its admissions, which circulated within the university in 2013. The reports, by Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research, found that being Asian-American was negatively associated with being admitted. Harvard says the reports are incomplete.


The plaintiffs indicated on Monday that they consider the 2013 reports to be among their strongest evidence. “Before there was a website called ‘Harvard Not Fair,’ before Harvard knew anything about this case, Harvard’s own internal researchers told Harvard, told Dean Fitzgerald, that having a higher personal rating was the most important thing to get in,” Mr. Mortara said in opening arguments. “They also told them that there was a big tip for African-Americans,” Mr. Mortara said, using a common term for an admissions preference or advantage.

原告在周一暗示,他们认为这份2013年的报告是他们掌握的是最强有力的证据之一。“早在‘哈佛不公平’(Harvard Not Fair)网站出现之前,早在哈佛知道这个案子的任何事情之前,哈佛自己内部的研究人员就对哈佛、对菲茨西蒙斯院长说,有更高的个性评分对被录取来说是最重要的,”莫塔拉在开庭陈述中说。“研究人员还告诉他们,对非洲裔美国人有一个大的额外考虑。”莫塔拉说,他用了描述录取偏好或优势的一个常用术语。

Mr. Lee argued on Harvard’s behalf that the plaintiffs had misinterpreted the internal report, whose real purpose was to assess admissions of low-income students.


Both sides will rely on expert analysis. The plaintiffs’ report, written by Dr. Peter Arcidiacono, found, among other things, that the “personal ratings” given to Asian-American applicants tended to significantly drag down their chances of being admitted.

双方都将依靠专家分析。原告的分析报告由彼得·阿西迪亚科诺博士(Dr. Peter Arcidiacono)撰写,报告发现,与其他因素相比,对亚裔美国申请人作出的“个性评分”往往会显著地拉低他们被录取的机会。

Harvard signaled on Monday that it will argue that the plaintiffs are glossing over aspects of the admissions data that undermine their case, including figures that show no discrimination against some categories of Asian-Americans.


Harvard’s lawyer, Mr. Lee, said that other factors, including an applicant’s intended major and parents’ occupation, weigh more heavily than race in determining which students are admitted, and that once those factors are accounted for, the statistical support for the plaintiffs’ claim of discrimination disappears.


Much of the courtroom debate is expected to focus on how the two experts conducted their analyses, and what they chose to include and omit.


How do Asian-Americans feel about the case?


Surveys show that by and large, Asian-Americans support affirmative action. Many have fiercely defended Harvard in the lawsuit, and say that the plaintiffs are using them against other minorities.


But the case has also been deeply painful for some, dredging up longstanding fears of being reduced to crude stereotypes. It has sowed ambivalence and division among Asian ethnic groups.


Increasingly vocal groups of Chinese-Americans have been galvanized by the fight over race-based school admissions. Dozens of Chinese-Americans filed their own discrimination complaint with the Justice Department against Harvard. The department has opened investigations at Harvard and at Yale on the issue, and has backed the plaintiffs in the Harvard suit.


What’s the history behind the case?


The lawsuit was first filed in 2014, but it has been decades in the making. Disputes over whether Harvard imposes quotas on Asian-Americans date back to at least the 1980s. The Education Department looked into the matter in 1988, but cleared Harvard of any foul play, a point Mr. Lee dwelled on in his opening.


The debate roared back to life in 2012 after a conservative activist published a long essay about Harvard admissions called “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” which attracted mainstream news coverage. Mr. Lee derided that essay as “provocative,” and said that the university’s introspection about admissions was prompted instead by the research of Caroline Hoxby, an economist studying low-income students and college.

2012年,一名保守派活动人士发表了一篇关于哈佛如何录取学生的长文,文章的题目是《美国英才领导体制的神话》(The Myth of American Meritocracy),文章引起主流媒体的报道后,这场辩论又重新活跃起来。李嘲笑该文是“煽动性的”,并说,哈佛对招生情况的内部反思是卡洛琳·霍克斯比(Caroline Hoxby)的研究引起的,霍克斯比是研究低收入学生群体与大学的经济学家。

The plaintiffs in the current lawsuit have tried to trace the issue back even farther, to Harvard’s history of restricting its admission of Jews starting in the 1920s.


“We must take as many as we can benefit,” the president of the university, A. Lawrence Lowell, wrote concerning Jewish applicants in a 1922 letter, “but if we take more, we shall not benefit them and shall ruin the college.”

“我们必须尽可能多地录取对我们有利的人数,”哈佛大学校长A·劳伦斯·洛厄尔(A. Lawrence Lowell)在1922年的一封信中提到犹太申请人时写道,“但是,如果我们录取更多人的话,我们将无法让他们受益,并且将毁掉这所大学。”

Jewish enrollment at Harvard had been growing rapidly, and by 1925, Jews accounted for 27.1 percent of the freshman class, according to court documents, leading to threats from some alumni that they would stop giving. Mr. Lowell proposed a quota of 15 percent, but the plan met heated opposition. Then, in January 1926, Harvard revamped its admissions policy, in part by putting more emphasis on “character and fitness,” according to another unsealed document, as well as “racial characteristics.”


“Race is part of the record,” a student paper, The Gadfly, quoted the admissions chairman saying a few months after the change. “It is by no means the whole record and no man will be kept out on grounds of race.”

“种族是正式记录的一部分”,一份学生报纸《牛虻》(The Gadfly)援引当时的招生主管在修改政策几个月后说的话写道。“它绝不是全部的记录,没有人会因为种族而被拒之门外。”

Judge Burroughs has expressed skepticism about whether the history of discrimination against Jews at Harvard is relevant to the current case, but she agreed to allow limited testimony on the matter.




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