Federal Judge Upholds Harvard's Race-Conscious Admissions Process

Oct 1, 2019
Originally published on October 2, 2019 1:26 pm

Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET

A judge has ruled in favor of Harvard University in a high-profile court case centered on whether the school's admissions process forces Asian Americans to clear a higher bar to get in.

Federal District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs issued her decision Tuesday, saying "the Court finds no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice against Asian Americans." In the decision, Burroughs said that while Harvard's admissions program is "not perfect," "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."

The plaintiff, advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), accused Harvard of considering race too much and discriminating against Asian American applicants. SFFA President Edward Blum said in a statement that he was disapointed by the ruling and, "SFFA will appeal this decision to the 1st Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the U.S Supreme Court."

Supporters of affirmative action fear that if this case makes it to the nation's highest court, race-conscious admissions could be eliminated.

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

Associate education law professor Liliana Garces co-authored an amicus brief supporting Harvard's admissions practices leading up to the trial.

"I think what this case represents is a very concerted effort to bring the question of race-conscious admissions back to the Supreme Court," said Garces, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

Many colleges that already consider race in admissions have been closely watching the Harvard lawsuit. "It matters a lot what the Harvards of the world do," said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.

According to Jones, Tuesday's ruling might encourage those schools to stay the course.

"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, led by conservative strategist Edward Blum, sued Harvard back in 2014, alleging that the school discriminates against Asian American applicants in the admissions process. The organization says Harvard uses "racial balancing" — which is illegal — to curate its student body and holds Asian American students to a higher standard than others in the admissions process. (Blum was also behind a lawsuit against the University of Texas at Austin, challenging its affirmative action program. The Supreme Court sided with the University of Texas in 2016.)

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.

Harvard only accepts a small percentage of its applicants, but most American colleges and universities accept a majority of those who apply. And while Harvard is among a large group of selective schools that consider race as one factor in admissions, most schools don't take race into account.

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Today a judge in Boston ruled that Harvard University's admissions process does not discriminate against Asian Americans. An advocacy group sued the Ivy League school, accusing it of forcing Asian Americans to meet a higher standard of admission. Harvard disputed those claims during a trial last fall. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us in the studio to talk more.

Welcome back.


CORNISH: Remind us what was behind this lawsuit in the first place.

NADWORNY: Yeah. So this case is all about Harvard's use of race in the admissions process. So the case started back in 2014, when an anti-affirmative action group called Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard, alleging that the school discriminated against Asian American applicants in the admissions process. So Students for Fair Admissions, they allege that Harvard uses racial balancing to curate its student body and holds Asian Americans to a higher standard than others in the admissions process.

But Harvard said it doesn't. Rather, they argued they use a holistic review. So they look at lots of different things about a student - test scores, extracurricular activities, life experiences. Race may be considered as part of the larger picture about a student, but it's not the only consideration. And it's interesting that in the trial, no one who had been rejected from Harvard actually testified on the plaintiff's behalf. But for Harvard's side, many students and alumni testified about the benefits of diversity on campus.

CORNISH: How did the judge explain this decision?

NADWORNY: So Allison Burroughs, the federal district court judge in the case, she issued a 130-page decision upholding Harvard's admissions program, finding it, quote, "passes constitutional muster." She said it, quote, "it was not perfect" (ph) but that it ensures the diversity at Harvard, in part because of its race-conscious admissions.

So her opinion referenced the current legal precedent for race-conscious admissions. So Harvard and other schools are allowed to consider race as long as they consider other factors in the admissions process. So Harvard looks at applications with their holistic review, so that was perfectly constitutional.

CORNISH: What, if any, implications does this have for other schools and universities?

NADWORNY: So Harvard issued a statement which kind of helps put this in perspective. They said that the court, quote, "has recognized now is not the time to turn back the clock on diversity and opportunity." So for schools that already use race in admissions or - they may have been anxious about the lawsuit, this decision could encourage them to stay the course. So Harvard's super selective, and not lots of colleges across are. Like, many students go to not selective universities.

So I talked with Tiffany Jones at the Education Trust about this. And she says despite that, it does matter what Harvards and other institutions like Harvard do because they educate our business leaders, politicians. And so they can help kind of steer the conversation. She also says this case, it goes beyond Harvard. It's about benefits of diversity and a benefit of a diverse student body.

TIFFANY JONES: 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.

CORNISH: What's the rest of the response? And what happens next?

NADWORNY: So the group that sued Harvard, Students for Fair Admissions, they say they're disappointed by the ruling and they will appeal. That group, SFFA, it's led by this conservative activist named Edward Blum. And experts say that he is on a mission to get this case to the Supreme Court. Blum was behind another affirmative action case involving the University of Texas at Austin in 2016. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld race-based admissions. But right now the Supreme Court looks different than it did back then. Of course, that steps away. So you know, we'll see where the appeals process leads.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

Thanks for this update.

NADWORNY: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.