NEW YORK -- The Trump administration has thrown its weight behind a nonprofit group suing Harvard University in federal court, filing a document backing Students for Fair Admissions' charge that the school discriminates against Asian-American applicants.
"As a condition of receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer funding every year, Harvard specifically agrees to not discriminate on the basis of race in its admissions decisions," the Justice Department said in a Thursday announcement. "However, the students and parents who brought this suit have presented compelling evidence that Harvard's use of race unlawfully discriminates against Asian-Americans. In today's filing, the United States urges the court to grant the plaintiffs the opportunity to prove these claims at trial."
"Based solely on a review of the applicant's file, Harvard scores its applicants based on 'subjective' factors such as 'likability' and being a 'good person' with 'human qualities,'" the department said. "Harvard admits that, on average, it scores Asian-American applicants lower on this 'personal rating' than applicants of other races."
The lawsuit was filed against the president and fellows of Harvard College in 2014 on behalf of rejected Asian-American applicants.
The suit contrasts the relatively stable percentage of Asian undergraduates enrolled at Harvard -- hovering between 14% and 18% from 2003 to 2013 -- against other elite schools like the California Institute of Technology, whose figure jumped from 31.1% to 42.5%.
Harvard said Thursday that it does not discriminate against applicants from any group and that colleges have the right to consider race as an admissions factor in the interest of diversity.
"We are deeply disappointed that the Department of Justice has taken the side of [President] Edward Blum and Students for Fair Admissions, recycling the same misleading and hollow arguments that prove nothing more than the emptiness of the case against Harvard," it said.
"The personal rating reflects a wide range of applicant information, such as personal essays, which Harvard uses to understand the applicant's full life story, for example, where the student grew up, what opportunities or challenges they faced in their families and communities, and what impact they might have both at Harvard and after they graduate, as citizens and leaders out in the world," the university said.
Harvard previously filed a motion to dismiss the case ahead of the trial, which is expected to start in Boston on Oct. 15. The Justice Department urged the court to reject that request in Thursday's 40-page "statement of interest."
Asian-Americans are divided on the issue. More than a few see the lawsuit as part of a broader attack on affirmative action -- one that will ultimately hurt rather than help them. A 2016 survey from the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice found that 52% of Asian-American voters support "affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses."
U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has moved to discourage affirmative action, rescinding in July a set of Obama-era guidelines that encouraged such policies.
Among Asian-Americans who made it into Harvard, there also appears to be a question of allegiance.
"To be honest, I don't know how I feel about the lawsuit," a current student of Chinese descent told the Nikkei Asian Review by email. "There seems to be so much information coming from all different directions ... and it's hard to parse the real truth from all that" when each side tries its hardest to make a case, she said.
"Do I support the Asian-American community or do I defend the Harvard community, both of which I am very much a part of?" she asked. For this successful applicant, the answer is not so clear.