‘Princeton had a Chernobyl-type nervous breakdown,’ says head of anti-racial affirmative action group after U. sues DoE over record release

Students for Fair Admissions plan to litigate on behalf of Department of Education, considers challenging Princeton admission practices in court once 1,600-page document becomes public

In light of a recent lawsuit filed by Princeton University against the US Department of Education (DoE) seeking to block the release of a 1,600-page long admission-related report, The Tab sits down with Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, for an interview.

Blum has led the charge against admission practices in elite universities that use race as a factor, including suing the DOE in October, 2016 for public disclosure of all documents pertaining to Princeton’s admission records. Blum also helped initiate multiple federal-level cases directly challenging racial affirmative action, including Fisher v. University of Texas.

edward blum

Edward Blum

In this current lawsuit, Princeton filed the complaint against the Department of Education, not directly against Students for Fair Admissions. How would describe your involvement throughout the process?

In January of 2016, Student for Fair Admissions sent a FOIA request to the US Department of Education asking for documents from the entire Princeton investigation. The Department of Education answered saying that they’d have to go through certain procedures. We never heard anything definitive so we started corresponding with DOE’s legal counsel. We kept asking where is it? Where is it? And we were told that the files were being held up because Princeton is going over everything that they had already submitted.

There’s an aspect of FOIA laws that specify certain deadlines for federal agencies to provide information on a timely number. And so we did something that wasn’t uncommon, which was to sue the DOE in federal court, arguing that DOE was now outside of their regulatory timeline.

We started then to communicate as legal adversaries, at which point the DOE probably went to Princeton and said that ‘we, the department of education rejects your objections to releasing the file’. And so DOE essentially made clear that all the information would be handed to Students for Fair Admission on Friday, March the 17th. In other words, we should’ve gotten our files by last Friday.

So there must have been a Chernobyl-type meltdown in the president’s office as Princeton, at the very last minute, dashes into federal court, sues DOE and temporarily puts the transfer of documents to a halt.

Do you think Student for Fair Admissions will participate formally in the upcoming litigation process?

Yes, we will participate for sure. We will ask the court to allow us to intervene on behalf of the Department of Education. It is our hope to be able to be a full participate in the litigation on the side of DOE.

Do you think locking down admission records is a repeated pattern of behavior among highly selective universities?

It’s an interesting question. You may recall that about two years ago, it was revealed that beginning with Stanford and soon moving towards other highly competitive, generally private universities, a process had begun to destroy student files. This was rather shocking to the higher education community and to us. And thus, Student for Fair Admissions sent a letter to every Ivy League and other universities including Stanford putting them on notice that their admissions process may be challenged in a court of law, and that these admission files may be inculpatory in determining the constitutionality of their practices.

Now comes Princeton. We sent one such letter to President Eisgruber in 2015. As I recall, President Eisgruber responded and I thought it was a cordial, insightful and intelligent letter.

Did President Eisgruber commit to preserving the admission records in his letter?

I can’t represent that because I don’t exactly remember. We did get letters from different universities.

But let’s fast forward now to the issue at hand. And that’s the fact that Princeton was accused of discriminating against Asian applicants in 2008. The Department of Education had launched an investigation against Princeton for a relatively long time, and it looked like that about 1600 pages of information, including a lot of the database from Princeton’s admission office, had been provided by the university to DOE. And the resulted of that was the DOE exonerated Princeton.

This was not a surprise. I don’t think DOE has ever shut down an admissions policy just based on complaints. But we believe that entire 1600-page document is subject to public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

Granted, we agreed with the DOE that it was not necessary to have individual student names identified to us. That kind of information should and must be redacted. Doing so would immunize an institution from direct responsibility of any individual’s rejection or acceptance. And OCR agreed with us! And so Princeton is apparently having a nervous breakdown about what is in those data files and what they would reveal in the hands of a statistician. So much so that Princeton is desperate to hide that information from the public.

What do you think is so revealing or insightful about information in this 1600-page document?

Data is a very important element in discrimination cases, whether it’s in employment or higher education admissions. Data is probably the most important element especially in anti-trust laws. With data, the government can hypothetically substantiate claims of price collusion between companies such as Pepsi and Coke without a documented meeting involving the two companies. So is the case with university admissions. For instance, if Princeton receives 25000 applications per year, and year after year going back to the early 90s, Asians have been admitted to Princeton with about nearly identical percentages, that suggests something is happening which the Supreme Court has struck down – that the University racially balances its incoming class.

On top of the fact that admission rates for different races have remained the same across the years, what has happened in the applicant pool is that the number of Asian candidates has doubled or even came close to tripling in the past two decades. But Princeton still seems to accept about the same number year after year, which strongly suggests that there’s a quota at work. Just as racial balancing has been struck down, so has outright racial quotas.

Graph by the American Conservative on Asian American enrollment in Ivy Leagues

So this information about the percentage of applicants, not admits, who are African American, Hispanic, or Asian American, that percentage is not public yet?

No. Not yet.

What do you hope to accomplish or achieve if you obtain the documents?

It’s hard to say. There are many options available to us and to anyone else! We don’t have any exclusive right to the document just because we’re the advocacy organization asking for it. I expect that there will be dozens of scholars who are interested in the legal and academic questions of high education and that data will be made available to further our understanding of whether most, if not all Ivy Leagues have been discriminating against Asian Americans.

And of course, it could be used as a legal challenge to Princeton’s admissions practice.

Speaking of legal challenges, would you potentially re-challenge OCR’s ruling that Princeton did not discriminate against Asian applicants in court?  

The legal advocates and federal and state agencies often come to very different conclusions about controversies. OCR in 2015 said “we don’t see the element of discrimination” to an Asian applicant who filed the suit, that doesn’t mean that another organization can’t review the same files and come to a different conclusion. If we come to a different conclusion than the one made by OCR, it’d be highly likely that someone would sue Princeton and claim that their practices are unconstitutional in court.

Students demonstrating support for affirmative action programs

Can you tell me more about Students for Fair Admissions, how it came to be, its mission, and most importantly, how are you guys funded?

Here’s the Cliffnotes version of our story. In the summer of 2013, shortly after the US Supreme Court made its decision in the first Fisher v. U of Texas case, some of us decided that there is a need for an organization to focus exclusively on university admissions, specifically, discrimination on university admissions.

The mission of this organization would be the elimination of racial classifications and preferences in higher education. Though these kinds of lawsuits have been pursued by individuals since 1970s and represented by legal organizations, no membership group has ever been organized.

When you think about advocacy organizations, the most effective are the ones where people can actually join and say “I am a paid member of the said organization.” Take NAACP and the Sierra Club for instance. After looking around, we realized that there’s not a membership organization to make the admissions process fairer and non-discriminatory. A group of us then got together and started Students for Fair Admissions. We applied for non-profit status and registered with the IRS. Since our founding, we now have over 21,000 members. Particularly, word had gotten out within the Asian American community shortly after our founding, and within a 30-day period we went from having 1400 to 16,000 members. It was an incredible growth spurt.

In terms of the money, we received 700 donations since our founding. These range from individual donations of 100 bucks to foundations that give many times more. There’s also a one-time cost of $10 to become a member and there’s no annual fee.

Affirmative action is a very politicized topic on some levels. Do you feel like the issue of affirmative action played a major role in last year’s presidential election for Asian American communities?

I don’t know how Asian Americans voted frankly. I thought they voted mostly Democrat. But I couldn’t be proven wrong. Here’s something more important that tells the story. If you look at the Gallup Poll taken after the second Fisher case, during which SCOTUS said race could remain a consideration, you’ll see that two-thirds of Americans that the Supreme Court was wrong. As you work your way through the poll, you’ll see that 57 percent of African Americans disagreed with the SCOTUS decision and that race should be used during admissions. 75 percent think that grades are the most important criterion for evaluation. Test scores are a bit lower – people don’t like taking tests. Then you have race all the way at the bottom. Look at that dwindled number! So I don’t have to persuade the American public that the use of race is wrong.

From your understanding of their backgrounds, do you feel like socioeconomic standing of the Asian American families you represent are at the upper end?

I have spoken individually to 75 different Asian families over the course of the formation of this organization. And of those 75 conversations I had, I probably met face to face with 20-25 Asian families – that is I met the mom, the dad, and the applicant. In terms of their socioeconomic background, it is completely varied. There is a young man whose parents worked on college campus not as faculty members but as cafeteria workers. How much could that family be bringing in? Then I have met applicants whose parents are faculty members or professionals. I’ve met families that practice medicine, law or investment banking, and then I’ve met a family whose dad is a shrimper on the Gulf coast and the mom worked as a housekeeper in a hotel. So I’ve seen very diverse group.

Some would argue that overall, there is still a high degree of correlation between race and socioeconomic status in America. So if Universities kept socioeconomic consideration as a factor, how would you respond to that?

I don’t think I have to respond to that! I think that if a university wish to lower the bar slightly, modestly, judiciously in order that students who have come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds could be admitted, I would applaud the decision. Let’s face it, white, black, Hispanic or Asian, a kid who goes to Dalton school in Upper-West side New York whose mother is on the faculty of NYU and dad is a lawyer and has always been in the most enriched academic backgrounds, that kid is often competing against the kid who perhaps grew up in a really modest, lousy neighborhood in the Bronx, went to a public school, and more likely raised by a single mom. Should the university take those circumstances under consideration? Absolutely! If that means that some kids are admitted because of that background, then I’ll all for it!

What we have to be careful of is the balance between academic preparedness and the level of difficulty of the institution. There was a study that showed that students who were admitted to the Princeton engineering school whose academic background isn’t as strong would’ve been better off at a lesser- demanding university like Syracuse. At the end of freshman year, those kids who were admitted, were unprepared, and want to be engineers or doctors or a STEM major, they often end up dropping out of those programs and going to the social sciences and humanities.

So while they may end up with a degree from Princeton, it would not be in the field that they originally wanted to pursue.

Obviously affirmative action has sparked heated exchanges between both sides of the issue. If there’s one misunderstanding that you feel your opponents have about you, what would it be and how would you respond to it?

I’ve never met anyone – a parent or a legal opponent – who said that it is our hope that this nation will forever classify people by race. No one said that the current practice should be the end result of our policy. My opponents have often said that while it is true we’d like to end those practices, we cannot do it now.

My counterargument to that is that the longer we continue with these practices, the farther we get from the original principles of the Civil Rights Movement. The original principle of the Civil Rights Movement is that your race should not be something that’s used to help you or harm you in life.

Princeton University