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Appeals Court Clears Harvard Of Racial Bias In Admissions

Dunster House at Harvard University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Dunster House at Harvard University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

A federal appeals court has upheld the ruling that Harvard College does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants in its admissions process.

In a 104-page decision issued Thursday morning, a two-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston found that “there was no error” in the original decision under Supreme Court precedent.

This latest decision arrives nearly six years after Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) — a nonprofit group opposed to affirmative action that is fronted by conservative legal activist Edward Blum — first sued Harvard, claiming that its complex system of student evaluation masked a measurable anti-Asian bias.

In the intervening years, SFFA’s attorneys produced evidence showing that Asian-American applicants to Harvard tended to earn lower “personal ratings” under the admissions office’s rubric — and to be admitted in disproportionately small numbers. (Students of Asian descent made up roughly a quarter of the American students admitted to Harvard last year.)

After a lengthy bench trial and months of deliberation, Judge Allison Burroughs found in her October 2019 decision that a "correlation between race and the personal and school support ratings does not clearly demonstrate a causal relationship" between those factors.

SFFA began its appeal just days after the district court’s decision. In a brief submitted in June, SFFA attorneys returned to its statistical analysis, and argued that Burroughs failed to apply due scrutiny to observable anti-Asian “penalties.”

Over Harvard’s objections, the court heard their case in mid-September, but ended up finding in the institution’s favor.

Supreme Court precedent dictates that colleges may consider race where they have a “compelling interest” to do so, and may not use mechanistic racial quotas or balancing to achieve it.

Judge Sandra Lynch concluded that Harvard’s system passes that test — though she added that it, like all institutions, has an “ongoing obligation” to monitor its admissions practices for any signs of bias.

Calls to Edward Blum were not immediately returned. It is not clear whether he plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The legal battles over race-conscious admissions are far from over.

SFFA initiated a suit against the University of Texas at Austin in July, alleging that it has “increased its reliance on race” in admissions since its 2016 Supreme Court victory in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Blum, SFFA’s president, was a sponsor of plaintiff Abigail Fisher’s eight-year legal campaign against that university, which denied her admission.

And in October, President Trump’s Department of Justice sued Yale University after an investigation found that its undergraduate admissions process “relies upon and reinforces damaging race-based stereotypes.” (Yale President Peter Salovey has described that finding as “baseless.”)

This article was originally published on November 12, 2020.


Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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