Judge Allison Burroughs ruled Tuesday that while Harvard’s admissions process is “not perfect,” she will not “dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better.”
In her 130-page opinion, Burroughs stressed that race-conscious admissions hold “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.”
The ruling in the closely watched case is likely to be appealed and culminate in a national showdown over affirmative action at the US Supreme Court.
The challengers had argued at trial that as the “personal” rating system disfavors Asian Americans, it favors blacks and Hispanics, who generally have lower standardized test scores compared with Asian Americans.
The storied Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus accepts only about 5% of its 40,000 applicants each year.
The Harvard ruling comes as college admissions practices are being scrutinized nationwide, including by federal prosecutors who allege that celebrity and other wealthy parents paid off coaches and education administrators to falsify student records to help them win acceptance at elite schools. The Harvard dispute centers on a wholly different but nonetheless longstanding point of contention: how institutions use students’ race to boost the chances of traditionally disadvantaged applicants and enhance diversity on campus.
Affirmative action challenge
Edward Blum, a conservative lawyer who had engineered the challenge filed in 2014, said his group, Students for Fair Admissions, would appeal to decision for the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian American applicants,” Blum said in a statement.
Blum has long opposed racial policies that have primarily benefitted blacks and Hispanics. In the past, Blum had sought white students to challenge affirmative action. In 2016, such a case he engineered against affirmative action at the University of Texas at Austin lost narrowly at the Supreme Court.
The Harvard lawsuit was brought under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits race discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. Filed on behalf of Asian Americans but without any named individuals alleging bias, the case has accelerated simmering complaints from students of Asian heritage that their numbers at Ivy League institutions are capped, just as Jewish students faced quotas on elite campuses in the last century.
At its broadest, Blum crafted the case to challenge a 1978 Supreme Court precedent that first upheld campus affirmative action, permitting universities to consider the race of an applicant among many factors, toward the goal of greater campus diversity, and forbidding racial quotas in admissions. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke was decided by a 5-4 vote and has been affirmed by narrow splits through the years. It now appears a possible target of reversal at a Supreme Court that has grown more conservative and in recent years and overturned a handful of liberal precedents from the 1970s.
Burroughs found “Harvard’s admission program passes constitutional muster in that it satisfies the dictates of strict scrutiny.”
“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” she wrote. “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.”
No expert either side of the case, Burroughs wrote, had proposed an alternative that would allow Harvard to “meet its diversity goals while not unduly compromising on its other legitimate institutional objectives.”
This story is breaking and will be updated.