An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
For a man who is not a lawyer, Edward Blum sure does spend a lot of time in the federal courts.
But that’s the venue you’re aiming for when, like Mr. Blum, you seek to change what you see as a distorted admissions process at America’s top colleges.
“We do not believe race should be a consideration when it comes to determining who gets into a college,” said Mr. Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions. “We believe it is unconstitutional.”
That might appear a radical stance, particularly at a time when California voters this week will reconsider the state’s Proposition 209, which bans race as a consideration in the decisions of public institutions, and Black Lives Matter protests have become frequent in America’s cities.
Yet most Americans think Students for Fair Admissions is picking an average person’s fight. When the Pew Research Center asked about the subject last year, 73% of Americans said race and ethnicity should play no part in college admissions, and only 7% said it should be a major factor.
“The easiest part of my job is convincing people that race shouldn’t be an issue, period,” said Mr. Blum, a conservative legal strategist and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “The people we represent aren’t children of hedge fund CEOs. They are the sons and daughters of hotel workers, grocery clerks, families in which both Mom and Dad work.”
Students for Fair Admissions launched multiple court battles, and many are still ongoing. It represented Abigail Fisher in her lawsuit against the University of Texas, a case that went to the Supreme Court twice and ended with Justice Anthony Kennedy green lighting the school’s consideration of race in applications.
The nonprofit group also got involved in cases against the University of Michigan, two of which also led to Supreme Court arguments, and took on the crown jewel of colleges, Harvard University.
Harvard prevailed against Mr. Blum’s outfit, but the trial in federal district court in Massachusetts did uncover some remarkable information, he said.
The lawsuit against Harvard, now in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, involved Asian American applicants who contend Harvard discriminated against them in admissions. For example, in an outcome suggesting a quota system, Asian Americans comprised a remarkably steady 18% of incoming Harvard students from 1992 to 2013.
In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard. That fall, the Asian American component of the new freshman class climbed to 23%.
“We had expert economists and statisticians dig into those numbers and they testified the likelihood of that increase coming out of the blue, or being random, is basically zero,” Mr. Blum said.
Documents pried loose from Harvard during the suit showed many Asian American applicants had test scores and grades that put them in the highest ranks, but they repeatedly fell short on intangibles. In interviews, many Asian Americans were deemed lacking in charisma, personality and leadership ability.
Harvard just didn’t like the cut of their jib, it seemed.
Something very similar occurred about a hundred years ago in Cambridge circles.
“What happened to Jews at Harvard in the 1920s happens to Asians today,” Mr. Blum said. “They supposedly lack courage. They are one-dimensional.”
The Harvard case has been argued before the 1st Circuit but, in an unfortunate twist, one of the three judges who heard the case died in October.
While that may put the Harvard matter in temporary limbo, the Crimson is not alone in allegedly discriminating against some applicants, according to the Department of Justice, which last month sued Yale on similar grounds.
“Yale discriminated against applicants to Yale College on the grounds of race and national origin, and … Yale’s discrimination imposes undue and unlawful penalties on racially disfavored applicants, including in particular most Asian and White applicants,” the Justice Department said.
Students for Fair Admissions filed court documents to join the lawsuit, a move several legal experts said is well-grounded as both law and an insurance policy. Should Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden win the presidency, Mr. Blum and others assume the new attorney general would move to dismiss the Yale lawsuit and the judge most likely would accept the motion.
If Students for Fair Admissions is granted status as a co-plaintiff, however, that could keep the lawsuit alive. The group is free to file its own suit in any case, but Mr. Blum said it made more sense to join the one already in motion.
It isn’t only Harvard and Yale.
In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions also filed a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for unfairly raising the bar higher for white applicants. The case is expected to go to trial in November.
“It’s likely going on all over the map,” he said.
History appears to support that contention. In 2004, then-Chancellor of the University of California Board of Regents John Moores ignited a firestorm when he revealed that, absent discrimination, the incoming class at the flagship campus in Berkeley would be 100% Asian American.
The various cases Students for Fair Admissions are involved in are a full-time job, and while Mr. Blum maintains a link with AEI, he was appointed president of the group in 2014.
The goal is to cut the tangled knot that race and ethnicity wrap around college admissions. A Supreme Court ruling to declare race-based admissions unconstitutional is needed now, Mr. Blum said.
He’s not sure America will get it.
“You never know what they’re going to do,” he said, pointing to the six times he’s been involved in a case before the highest court.
If Students for Fair Admissions were to win, Mr. Blum said his role would transition to one of being a watchdog. With 23,000 dues-paying members and counting, he does not envision the issue disappearing.
Students for Fair Admissions can’t really offer a victory to those it believes were victimized. The lawsuits don’t seek any monetary awards, and presumably, those who applied to college 15 years or so ago have moved on.
“But they’ll know,” Mr. Blum said. “And what if they have a younger brother or sister? What about their own children, or grandchildren? This would let them know that those people won’t suffer, like they did, because of their race.”
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