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Federal Judge Upholds Harvard's Race-Conscious Admissions Process

Victor J. Blue
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET

A judge has ruled in favor of Harvard University in a high-profile court case centered on whether the school's admissions process forces Asian Americans to clear a higher bar to get in.

Federal District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs issued her decision Tuesday, saying "the Court finds no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice against Asian Americans." In the decision, Burroughs said that while Harvard's admissions program is "not perfect," "ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions."

In a statement, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said, "Today we reaffirm the importance of diversity — and everything it represents to the world."

The plaintiff, advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), accused Harvard of considering race too much and discriminating against Asian American applicants. SFFA President Edward Blum said in a statement that he was disapointed by the ruling and, "SFFA will appeal this decision to the 1st Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the U.S Supreme Court."

Supporters of affirmative action fear that if this case makes it to the nation's highest court, race-conscious admissions could be eliminated.

"This has been kind of a beacon of civil rights policies in higher education that helped to transform student demographics, especially at elite institutions," said Mitchell Chang, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Associate education law professor Liliana Garces co-authored an amicus brief supporting Harvard's admissions practices leading up to the trial.

"I think what this case represents is a very concerted effort to bring the question of race-conscious admissions back to the Supreme Court," said Garces, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

Many colleges that already consider race in admissions have been closely watching the Harvard lawsuit. "It matters a lot what the Harvards of the world do," said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.

According to Jones, Tuesday's ruling might encourage those schools to stay the course.

"This decision helps to reinforce this idea that there are legal ways to incorporate a racial-equity focus in the efforts of higher education leaders to create opportunities and support the success of underrepresented students of color."

SFFA, led by conservative strategist Edward Blum, sued Harvard back in 2014, alleging that the school discriminates against Asian American applicants in the admissions process.The organization says Harvard uses "racial balancing" — which is illegal — to curate its student body and holds Asian American students to a higher standard than others in the admissions process. (Blum was also behind a lawsuit against the University of Texas at Austin, challenging its affirmative action program. The Supreme Court sided with the University of Texas in 2016.)

Harvard denied the group's claims of discrimination, presenting its own evidence to the contrary during a three-week trial in fall 2018. Harvard uses what it calls a "whole person review" in its admissions process, considering many qualities about each candidate. Testimony from Harvard representatives, including the admissions dean, provided a window into the school's normally mysterious admissions system.

Harvard only accepts a small percentage of its applicants, but most American colleges and universities accept a majorityof those who apply. And while Harvard is among a large group ofselective schools that consider race as one factor in admissions, most schools don't take race into account.

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Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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