Harvard wins legal fight to consider race in admissions

Court ruling is likely headed to Supreme Court, which may reconsider past approvals

October 1, 2019
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Harvard University has won a high-profile court case which challenged its admissions practices, extending a series of legal victories to US universities using race as a factor in enrolment decisions.

Ruling in the case of a three-week trial she oversaw in October 2018, federal judge Allison Burroughs concluded that “ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race-conscious admissions.

“The court will not dismantle a very fine admissions programme that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better,” the judge said.

The case was brought in 2014 by advocacy group, Students for Fair Admissions, which has been pursuing, and losing, similar cases at other US universities. The group, known as SFFA, said it will appeal the ruling.

For its suit against Harvard, SFFA chose as its plaintiff an ethnic Asian student who was denied admission to Harvard, arguing that the student lost his bid because Harvard takes steps to help black and Hispanic students with weaker academic records.

The US Supreme Court has previously allowed colleges to consider race as a factor in admissions if the use is “narrowly tailored” to promote the general cause of diversity, and doesn’t involve specific racial quotas.

But the Trump administration has sided with SFFA and other opponents of affirmative action, and it has made two appointments to the Supreme Court that could lead to a different legal position if the Harvard case reaches it.

The ruling came just one day after another federal judge allowed a lawsuit by SFFA challenging race-based admissions practices at the University of North Carolina to move forward.

Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, in a statement to the university community, took a moment to celebrate the victory rather than worry about the appeals process that likely lies ahead.

Dr Bacow reiterated Harvard’s insistence that it seeks a diverse student body for the benefit of all who attend Harvard and quoted extensively from Judge Burroughs’ own adulating embrace of that philosophy.

“It is this, at Harvard and elsewhere that will move us, one day, to the point where we see that race is a fact, but not the defining fact and not the fact that tells us what is important, but we are not there yet. Until we are, race-conscious admissions programmes that survive strict scrutiny will have an important place in society,” the judge said.

SFFA’s founder, Edward Blum, said in a statement promising an appeal of Judge Burroughs’ ruling that he remained firm in his belief that evidence produced at trial “compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian-American applicants”.

A series of groups representing US universities and minority studies praised the ruling by Judge Burroughs. They include the nation’s main higher education lobby group, the American Council on Education, which said it was “gratified that this decision unambiguously respects more than four decades of US Supreme Court precedent”.

“Today’s ruling is especially gratifying because it occurs against a backdrop of continuing attacks on what remains the settled law of the land in this area,” ACE said in the statement from its president, Ted Mitchell.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Well isn't this race associated laws rules and regulation biting back. If research looked into why black and hispanic people don't do so well in the lower school system in America, matters could be identified and nipped in the bud there, instead of presenting the problem at a later stage in life, which is then 'resolved' with a clear raw leg up. The leg up never did wash with those who are competing solely on merit.

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