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Judge upholds Harvard’s admissions policy

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A Harvard Yard Veritas Gate on Mass Ave. is framed by a canopy of Fall Foliage. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer.

By Coleen Walsh

The Harvard Gazette

Federal Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard Tuesday, upholding its practice of including race as one of many factors considered in reviewing applications to the College.

The long-awaited decision was the culmination of a lawsuit that began in 2014 when the group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), founded by affirmative-action foe Edward Blum, charged the University with discriminating against Asian American applicants based on their race. Blum has supported other lawsuits targeting civil rights protections in recent years. SFFA has similar litigation pending against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas.

In her 130-page ruling, Burroughs found for Harvard on SFFA’s claims, ruling that the University does not discriminate on the basis of race, does not engage in racial balancing or the use of quotas, and does not place too much emphasis on race when considering an applicant’s admissions file. She also wrote that, “Harvard has demonstrated that no workable and available race-neutral alternatives would allow it to achieve a diverse student body while still maintaining its standards for academic excellence.”

In her conclusion, Burroughs cited Supreme Court precedent, quoted Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and referenced the testimony of Ruth Simmons, former Brown University president and current president of Prairie View A&M University.

“Harvard’s admission program passes constitutional muster in that it satisfies the dictates of strict scrutiny,” wrote Burroughs. “The students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs, and talents. They will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences. 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 programs that survive strict scrutiny will have an important place in society and help ensure that colleges and universities can offer a diverse atmosphere that fosters learning, improves scholarship, and encourages mutual respect and understanding.”

In a letter to the community following the ruling, Harvard President Larry Bacow called it a victory for both diversity and inclusion.

“The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student. Everyone admitted to Harvard College has something unique to offer our community, and today we reaffirm the importance of diversity — and everything it represents to the world.”

Reacting to the ruling, Harvard’s lead attorney, William F. Lee ’72, said justice had been served.

“Today’s decision unequivocally affirms that Harvard does not discriminate on the basis of race in its admissions process, and that Harvard’s pursuit of the diverse student body central to its educational mission is lawful,” said Lee. “It represents a significant victory not merely for Harvard, but also for all schools and students, for diversity, and for the rule of law. As the court has recognized, now is not the time to turn back the clock on diversity and opportunity.”

Blum said his group was disappointed with the ruling. “We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis, and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian American applicants,” he said, promising to appeal the decision.

During the trial, which began last October in Boston’s federal courthouse, Harvard’s expert witness, economist David Card of the University of California at Berkeley testified that SFFA’s case was based on a flawed statistical model. As part of her ruling, Burroughs wrote she found “no credible evidence that corroborates the improper discrimination suggested by [SFFA’s] statistical model. Asian American applicants are accepted at the same rate as other applicants and now make up more than 20 percent of Harvard’s admitted classes, up from 3.4 percent in 1980.”

Eight current and former Harvard students testified in support of the University’s race-conscious admissions policies during trial. SFFA did not call any student to the witness stand to testify, which Burroughs noted during final arguments in February, telling SFFA’s lawyers that they had a “no-victim problem.” In Tuesday’s ruling, she reiterated the point.

“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.”

Jeannie Park ’83, co-founding board member of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard and president of the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance, two groups that joined briefs supporting the University and that together have 7,000 members representing all of Harvard’s Schools, regularly attended the trial.

“We are thrilled that the judge has ruled to affirm race-conscious admissions at Harvard and that the attack on campus diversity that this lawsuit represents has been beaten back,” said Park. “As alumni, we well know the critical role that the diversity of our classmates played in our education and continues to play in fostering the best possible learning environment and education for those who will lead our world in the future. The testimony of the student and alumni amici clearly made a difference in this case, and we are ever grateful to our members who shared their stories and thankful to Judge Burroughs for hearing them.”

(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)

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