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Harvard Student Discusses Why She Opposes The University's Admissions Process


Harvard is defending its admissions policy in a Boston courtroom this week. The question is whether the school discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The case could go to the Supreme Court, with broad implications for affirmative action in schools. Yesterday we spoke with an Asian-American student who believes Harvard should consider factors including race. Kelley Babphavong has the opposite view. She is also the daughter of Asian immigrants, and she is a junior at Harvard. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KELLEY BABPHAVONG: Great. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Why do you believe Harvard's admissions policy needs to change?

BABPHAVONG: I think race merely creates an illusion of diversity. And I'd love to see admissions policies change not to have race in it.

SHAPIRO: Now, Harvard says that when they do consider race, it's one of many factors, and that they consider its complicated role in student's life experiences. Would you like to see race just totally omitted from the list of factors that Harvard is considering when it assesses a student's qualifications?

BABPHAVONG: Yeah, I think so because when it comes down to it, race is sort of something that is becoming not just merely a factor but oftentimes the factor that a decision is based on. I think Harvard is saying that they don't do that. But what Students For Fair Admissions has been showing in - for the past few days and has really brought to light is that oftentimes it is the single race factor that comes down to someone's rejection. And I think it's...

SHAPIRO: Students For Fair Admissions is the group that brought this lawsuit, we should say.

BABPHAVONG: Yes. Yep. And I think it's scary to see this repeating in history because, back in the 1920s, Harvard sort of did this with Jewish applicants as well and sort of used a personal rating to artificially keep their numbers lower, although they were scoring higher on everything else, similar to what's happening with Asian-Americans right now.

SHAPIRO: Some supporters of Harvard in this case have alleged that the group that brought this suit is using Asian-Americans almost as a front trying to drive a wedge among minority groups and that, at the end of the day, this lawsuit, if it goes to the Supreme Court and is successful, is really likely to help white people more than any other racial group. What do you think of that argument?

BABPHAVONG: I don't think that that's true at all. Clearly affirmative action has failed in its goal right now. It's instead discriminated against Asian-Americans under the guise of diversity. And I think this is a critical time to re-evaluate how affirmative action policies are impacting different communities.

SHAPIRO: I'd like you to respond to something that Harvard senior Sally Chen said to us on the program yesterday. She plans to testify for Harvard at the trial. Here was part of our conversation.


SALLY CHEN: Merit means nothing without context. The kinds of barriers that people face and the kinds of - the ways that they overcome and work despite these barriers - I think - is really important to how we're thinking about the ways in which people can succeed and can lead.

SHAPIRO: Merit means nothing without context. What do you think of that idea?

BABPHAVONG: So I think that a lot of admissions processes should be based on just merit. But I come from an inner-city public high school background, and I do recognize that merit does need to be put in context sometimes. What resources and opportunities people have available to them is really important. But I think that when we look at it, we shouldn't just be looking at merit in the context of race. But again, like I said, merit in the context of economic status or something that speaks more to someone's opportunities and resources is really important.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you both agree that there are things about a person's application that cannot be quantified in grades and test scores. You just disagree about whether that list of things includes race or not.

BABPHAVONG: Yeah, I would agree with that. I would say that all of us sort of have the same goal of diversity on a college campus, whatever the sort of benefits of it are. But we just don't believe that we have to resort to racializing admissions and instead focus on something like poverty. Because when we focus on something like race, I think it creates a sort of division and sort of diversity for the sake of diversity. And I think Chief Justice John Roberts said it best when he said the only way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

SHAPIRO: Well, Kelley Babphavong, thank you so much for talking with us today.

BABPHAVONG: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: She is a junior at Harvard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.