Harvard University. Photo: Shutterstock.

Remember that much-watched Harvard University admissions case? Yes, it’s still going on.

Bill Lee.

On Wednesday, there was a final round of arguments before U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs of the District of Massachusetts. Delivering arguments for Harvard were Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr partners William Lee and Seth Waxman, stalwarts of the bar with decades upon decades of experience. Going against them was Bartlit Beck partner Adam Mortara, a 40-something who’s representing Student for Fair Admissions (SFFA), the group suing Harvard for allegedly discriminating against Asian-Americans. In a way, it looked like a battle between the Old Guards and the Young Turk.

Mortara hammered away at a point he made during the trial—and one that seems to have resonated with many Asian-Americans I’ve talked to: how Harvard consistently doled out low scores on personal qualities to Asian applicants. “There are only two possible answers,” Mortara said. “Either they deserve lower ratings” or “there’s racial stereotyping—that Asians are one-dimensional or just book smart.”

Over and over, Mortara invoked George Orwell, saying that Harvard was denying the reality of statistics that proved it practiced discrimination. “Harvard is saying, 2 + 2 = 5. Trust us.”

Adam Mortara.

Lee and Waxman, for their part, harped on what’s emerged as one of SFFA’s soft spots: The fact that it has not produced an individual witness who can claim to have suffered personally because of Harvard’s admissions practices. “What’s missing from the record is that no member of SFFA—not a single Asian-American denied admission has testified.” (Interestingly, the judge also raised that point during her questioning of Mortara.)

There also were plenty of spirited arguments about the burden of proof, interpretation of statistics and case law—which, frankly, left some in the courtroom (including me) a bit dazed and confused. It was like being in law school, locked in a room with a group of law reviewers (which, undoubtedly, most of the principal lawyers were) who loved sparring about obtuse points.

And the upshot of all this? I felt the two sides were arguing two very different points. SFFA pointed to statistics that showed that Asians outperformed all groups academically but somehow ended up with low personal scores, while Harvard emphasized that the process is more complex, with race being one of several factors. Waxman said at one point, “Statistical evidence is not enough unless it’s more stark than what’s been presented here.”

So, there’s the issue: Is admission to the most coveted college in the land a matter of science or art?


Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter @lawcareerist.