Demonstrators supporting Harvard University's admission process protest in Cambridge, Mass., on Oct. 14. (Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg)
Columnist

“Don’t be such a tool.”

It’s a lighthearted disparagement common on Ivy League campuses, usually leveled at classmates a bit too obvious about their status-climbing aspirations. “Don’t be such a tool,” you’d say to the guy who talks a bit too much about his Goldman Sachs interview, or the girl who refuses a party selfie because she “plans to run for office one day.”

As insults go, it’s mild, but it does hint at some underlying tensions. On the one hand, students realize that their place at a status factory such as Princeton or Yale gives them opportunities they should make the most of; on the other, it’s discomfiting that they might need to use them. It combines anxieties around class, validation, luck and merit: all the reasons why, for so many students, which college they attend really matters.

The same tensions haunt Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which went to trial in Boston this week. The word “tool” is relevant here, too, but in its more traditional meaning: that of letting oneself be used — wittingly or otherwise — by someone else.

The group bringing the lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions, argues that the university’s “race-conscious” admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans. According to SFFA, Harvard University limits the number of Asian students that it accepts to increase enrollment of other racial groups. They say Asian Americans are held to higher standards on objective measures such as grade point averages and test scores, and that the university uses nebulous “personality” categories to justify choosing less-qualified students to build a more racially diverse class.

The lawsuit was organized, and Students for Fair Admissions founded, by Edward Blum, a conservative legal activist who has spent most of two decades on a quest to end affirmative action in all arenas. He was also behind the suit by Abigail Fisher, a white student who blamed her rejection from the University of Texas at Austin on her race, which ultimately failed before the Supreme Court. To mount a more successful campaign, Blum decided that he (in his own words) “needed Asian plaintiffs.”

It’s important to note here that Asian students have a real grievance. In 2013, an investigation by Harvard’s own Office of Institutional Research suggested that the admissions process might have a “negative effect” on Asian American applicants. It’s a bit suspicious that even as the number of Asian Americans in the United States more than doubled over the past several decades, the percentage of Asian students in the school’s freshman class hovered within the same narrow range.

It does seem likely that Harvard could do more to avoid bias against this specific racial group, and it’s reasonable for applicants to want an even chance. Unfortunately, however, that real grievance is being used as a tool by Blum and others, in service of a goal that doesn’t serve them — or any minority student — in the long run.

The Harvard lawsuit has not been structured strictly to alleviate the school’s particular skew against Asian American students. There would be obvious ways to do so: make the admissions process more transparent; reconsider the favoritism heaped upon athletes and legacy students, for instance. Instead, the solution that Blum is proposing is to completely prohibit the consideration of race in college admissions.

The goal might sound nice — Wasn’t affirmative action supposed to end at some point? What about equality? — but what’s left unstated is that white applicants, not Asians, would see the largest gains from it. Race-conscious policies are used to expand access to groups who were historically shut out of places of opportunity and still face barriers unique to them today. Doing away with affirmative action will raise those walls higher for students already disadvantaged by prejudice and poverty — a group that still includes many Asian Americans.

Still, what about merit? Unfortunately (or not), Ivy League admissions aren’t prizes to be bestowed upon valedictorians alone — that would be impossible, considering the number of superlative students who apply. And the scores-based vision of “merit” also elides the fact that measurable achievement isn’t the only thing that matters. There is real value in a diversity of experience and identity. Hard work takes many forms.

And yet, the validation of a Harvard degree matters. For those without wealth or family connections — often the case among immigrant groups and minorities — the Ivy League stamp can feel like one of the only surefire paths to success. The fact that someone’s future can be determined by so quixotic a decision as college admission suggests that there are bigger questions to be addressed — ones in which race plays an important role. Maybe we should be focusing on creating more paths, not fighting so hard over the few we have.

Adam K. Mortara, the lawyer representing SFFA, took pains to say Monday that “The future of affirmative action is not on trial over the next three weeks.” That may be true, but what about the weeks after that? And what will that really mean for Asian American students in the future, and minority students overall?

In their alliance with Edward Blum, the Harvard plaintiffs are being used. Tools may be successful, but they’re still working toward someone else’s goals.