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Judge Determines Harvard’s Race-Conscious Admissions Policy Is Constitutional

Judge Determines Harvard’s Race-Conscious Admissions Policy Is Constitutional

Harvard admissions
By Joseph Williams Via Flickr

A judge has found that Harvard University’s race-conscious undergraduate admissions process is constitutional. The judgment found that the school’s process doesn’t intentionally discriminate against Asian-American applicants, who must clear a higher bar to get in.

The case, however, is expected to be appealed as high as the Supreme Court.

In her decision, Federal District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs said:  “the Court finds no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice against Asian Americans.” And while Burroughs said that while Harvard’s admissions program is “not perfect,” the process is a way of “ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions.”

In a statement, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said, “Today we reaffirm the importance of diversity — and everything it represents to the world.”

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement

“The court’s ruling today confirmed what the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld: affirmative action policies expand equal educational opportunity for all people of color, including Asian Americans, and are legal. It’s time for Edward Blum and the Barr Department of Justice to accept that.

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“A broad cross-section of our society supports these goals, and we applaud the court for reaffirming the constitutionality of these policies. Our nation’s rich diversity is its strength. It’s in everyone’s interest for colleges and universities to ensure that students benefit from the diverse perspectives and experiences of qualified students from all backgrounds.”

The lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard, was brought by advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) who accused Harvard of considering race too much and discriminating against Asian-American applicants. 

“This has been kind of a beacon of civil rights policies in higher education that helped to transform student demographics, especially at elite institutions,” Mitchell Chang, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NPR.

Harvard isn’t alone in considering race in admissions, several other colleges do so as well.  “It matters a lot what the Harvards of the world do,” said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust. “This decision helps to reinforce this idea that there are legal ways to incorporate a racial-equity focus in the efforts of higher education leaders to create opportunities and support the success of underrepresented students of color.”

SFFA is led by conservative strategist Edward Blum. The group sued Harvard back in 2014, alleging that the school discriminates against Asian American applicants in the admissions process. 

“Harvard denied the group’s claims of discrimination, presenting its own evidence to the contrary during a three-week trial in fall 2018. Harvard uses what it calls a ‘whole person review’ in its admissions process, considering many qualities about each candidate. Testimony from Harvard representatives, including the admissions dean, provided a window into the school’s normally mysterious admissions system,” NPR reported.

In the Harvard ruling, the judge said that since Asian-Americans now make up about one-quarter of Harvard’s admitted class but only account for about 6 percent of the U.S. population, “it is reasonable for Harvard to determine that students from other minority backgrounds are more likely to offer perspectives that are less abundant in its classes and to therefore primarily offer race-based tips to those students.”

Students for Fair Admissions would not identify individual plaintiffs but says it has 22,000 members, including Asian-American students who were rejected by Harvard.

“Judge Burroughs noted the absence of such students from the presentation of the case, saying ‘SFFA did not present a single Asian American applicant who was overtly discriminated against or who was better qualified than an admitted white applicant when considering the full range of factors that Harvard values in its admissions process,’”  The Wall Street Journal reported. 

SFFA had a similar lawsuit against the University of Texas-Austin that reached but has not been heard by the Supreme Court. And it has a case pending against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.