Today in USA higher education, affirmative action refers to policies that give students from underrepresented racial groups an advantage in the college admissions process, said Mark Naison, an African-American studies professor who teaches about affirmative action at Fordham University.
Students for Fair Admissions, a group representing Asian American applicants, alleged here in federal court that Harvard violated their civil rights by penalizing them for their race at key stages of deliberations.
He said that in order to promote diversity, Harvard does consider race as one factor among many, as the US Supreme Court has long permitted.
"Harvard has engaged in, and continues to engage in, intentional discrimination against Asian Americans", Mortara said.
The case, filed in November 2014, was engineered by conservative activist Edward Blum, who has brought a series of lawsuits against racial policies - from university affirmative action to voting rights - all the way up to the Supreme Court.
The Justice Department last month launched a similar investigation into whether Yale University also discriminates against Asian-Americans, an allegation it denies.
University lawyer Bill Lee argued that "Harvard can not achieve its educational goals without considering race", insisting that race is never a negative in admissions. In court, the group will need to prove that Harvard is intentionally rejecting the applicants because they're Asian, due to their race.
While the case focuses on Harvard, it could have big consequences for higher education, especially if it moves on to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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Adam Mortara, a lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions, says the subjective measure has been influenced by prejudice. Every year Harvard and other selective schools promise a "holistic review" of all who apply, looking at grades, test scores, transcripts, recommendations, family background and other information, including race and ethnicity.
Harvard's lawyers depicted the lawsuit as an attack on the school and many others that consider race as a way to admit a diverse mix of students. Its leaders also believe the suit threatens the flexibility that other courts have granted schools to build the type of student population that's best for their own campus.
Though such guidance doesn't have the force of law, schools could presumably use it to defend themselves against lawsuits over admission policies.
Some details emerging from the trial could cast Harvard in a positive light, explaining the many layers of review it gives to more than 40,000 files a year before making almost 2,000 admission offers.
"Harvard can not achieve its educational goals without considering race", Lee added, emphasizing the value of diversity to the educational experience.
The Harvard trial is expected to last about three weeks.
Co-founder and president of the group Asian American Coalition for Education, a major organizer of the rally, Yukong Zhao criticised the university for giving Asian Americans low personality scores. "Though Asian American applicants are exceedingly competitiveness on all objective measures both in academic and extracurricular criteria, they are consistently rated the lowest by the college's personality trait ratings", Zhao said.
The university also notes that the proportion of students of Asian origin has increased substantially since 2010, and today account for 23 percent of the 2,000 students admitted to the freshman class, compared to 15 percent blacks and 12 percent Hispanics, out of 40,000 applicants. Kennedy retired earlier this year, and Brett Kavanaugh recently replaced him. Courts have previously allowed universities to examine race as a factor in order to promote diversity on campus, a practice known as affirmative action, or "reverse discrimination".