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Dean Rouse defends holistic admissions process in editorial, amicus brief

Harvard Square, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Harvard Square, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dean of the Wilson School Cecilia Rouse and University of Virginia professor Sarah Turner defended Harvard’s holistic admissions practices in an opinion editorial published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday, Oct. 18. In the editorial, Rouse and Turner explained that considering a student’s academic accomplishments is not enough when it comes to choosing candidates for admission.

“Limiting admissions criteria to grades and scores runs the risk of keeping out many of these future leaders,” they wrote.


An ongoing investigation has brought the Harvard admissions process under scrutiny after affirmative action opponent Edward Blum and advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions organized a lawsuit against the university.

The case argues that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in favor of applicants of other racial groups by holding Asian-American applicants to a higher standard

Dean Cecilia Rouse co-wrote an editorial on Oct. 18 for The Philadelphia Inquirer on the ongoing Harvard Trial. Courtesy of the Office of Communications.

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Rouse explained that test scores and grades are flawed and aren’t capable of predicting a person’s future success. She said she believes in the importance of other personal factors that fall under Harvard’s consideration, like persistence, aspiration, and grit.

Rouse argued that it would be “impossible to capture” these attributes through calculations.

“It’s a luxury,” she said, referring to the ability of institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to have admissions teams that take a holistic approach to the admissions process.


Rouse, alongside several professors of economics from Princeton, Georgetown, Stanford and other organizations, filed an amicus brief on Sept. 6, 2018, that defends the methods of Harvard’s expert witness, UC Berkeley professor David Card, in the case. The brief argued that Card’s statistical analysis, which concluded that there was no significant racial discrimination in the admissions process, “relies on reasonable and accepted statistical methods.”

One method the brief defended was Card’s inclusion of ALDC applicants (“Athletes, Lineage, Dean/Director List, Children of faculty and staff”) in his regression analysis. The amicus brief argues that since ALDC applicants competed in the same applicant pool as other applicants in a given year, it only makes sense to include them in the study.

In the interview, Rouse emphasized that Harvard receives applicants with perfect test scores and grades that could fill a class several times over.

She also criticized the use of the word “discrimination” in the case.

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“If we had two people who we had an underlying understanding of whether they could do the work and then we’re just going to say we’re not going to take blacks or we’re not going to take women — that’s discrimination,” she explained.

However, Simon Park ’21, a Korean international student, said that colleges and universities have a bad habit of considering stereotypes when making admissions decisions.

He said that college admissions’ alleged practice of excluding Asian-Americans interested in STEM fields is a form of discrimination.

“One might say that a white person pursuing a career in the humanities field is a ‘stereotypical’ white person,” he said. “But the admissions office does not prevent the student from entering the school just because the person is ‘stereotypical.’”

Park cited shifting interests as the reason for Asian-Americans’ interest in STEM.

“The reason why there are more people who want to study science is because the society is changing,” he said. “The expectations of a college should also change. Whatever the admissions office is using to back up their claim, it is just an excuse to discriminate against Asians.”

Dora Zhao ’21, cultural advocate for the University’s Asian American Students Association, said she recognizes this may be a polarizing issue but that it is an important time for action and participation.

Zhao is the head editor of The Daily Princetonian’s Prospect section.

“This is an important moment for Asian-Americans to stand in solidarity with and support other people of color,” she said. “Especially as a group that historically has not been civically engaged, this is a pivotal point for political advocacy and action within the Asian-American community, regardless of your stance is on the issue.”