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Judge Sides With Harvard In High-Profile Admissions Case

Students walk in and out of the Widener Library in Harvard Yard. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Students walk in and out of the Widener Library in Harvard Yard. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After months of waiting and legal wrangling, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs has ruled that Harvard's race-conscious admissions policy is constitutional.

"For purposes of this case, at least for now, ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions," Burroughs writes in her 130-page decision. "Harvard’s admission program passes constitutional muster in that it satisfies the dictates of strict scrutiny."

Her ruling, dated Monday, comes almost a year after she presided over a clash of statistical and legal arguments at trial at the Moakley Courthouse in Boston.

The original complaint was filed in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit group backed by the conservative legal strategist Edward Blum.

It alleged that Harvard’s system of giving "tips," or admissions advantages, to certain applicants violated other applicants’ rights, under the Fourteenth Amendment, to “equal protection under the laws.”

For example, Peter Arcidiacono, an economist contracted by SFFA, concluded that an Asian American applicant with a 25% chance of being admitted to Harvard would see her chances jump to around 75% with the same credentials if she were Latina, and 94% if she were African American.

But Burroughs was not convinced, and ruled against SFFA on all four counts at issue. She concluded that admissions officers at Harvard consider race “in a flexible, non-mechanical way" in the service of a compelling interest: cultivating diversity at one of the nation’s most selective colleges.

Burroughs noted that Harvard’s admissions program is “not perfect,” and that it would “likely benefit” from implicit bias training and more vigilant monitoring of its own outcomes with regard to race. But she concluded, “the Court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better.”

In a statement, Bill Lee, Harvard's lead attorney, said the ruling "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."

The decision prompted celebrations on social media by groups that saw the lawsuit as a threat to diversity initiatives in American institutions. Among them were representatives from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund — which joined the case as a friend of the court last year — and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

The decision dealt a defeat to SFFA president Blum, who has sponsored multiple legal challenges to affirmative action on the basis of race, including Abigail Fisher’s two complaints against the University of Texas.

In a statement Tuesday, Blum said the group "is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies."

Blum added that “SFFA will appeal this decision to the First Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the U.S Supreme Court."

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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