Harvard Admissions Lawsuit Going to Trial

On September 28th, U.S. District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled that the admissions lawsuit filed against Harvard University must go forward to trial, despite the fact that both Harvard and the SFFA – the plaintiff, which is an anti-affirmative action advocacy group – spent the summer months urging her to settle the dispute out of court via summary judgment. There will be no jury, and Judge Burroughs will still make the final decision, but according to a court order filed on the 28th, Judge Burroughs felt that the case “requires a close review of the conflicting expert testimony, the available documents, and the testimony of the Admissions Office employees in the context of a trial.” The trial is scheduled to begin in Boston on Monday.

The Harvard admissions lawsuit has been at the forefront of college admissions news for several months, and now that it’s definitely going to trial, this a good time to review the facts. 

Students for Fair Admissions allege Asian-American students face discrimination in Harvard Admissions:

In June, Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group based in Virginia, filed a civil suit against Harvard, alleging that Asian-American students face significantly higher obstacles to admission than do other minorities because of their race. The plaintiffs revealed a set of 160,000 student records that indicate Harvard ranked Asian-American students lower on the “personal” category, one of five used in Harvard’s holistic admissions process, alongside academic, athletic, extracurricular, and overall rankings. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Edward Blum, accuses Harvard of using those scores as means of upholding a policy of “racial balancing” to pass over academically-qualified Asian-American candidates in favor of less-qualified white, Hispanic and black candidates. 

Blum, the figure at the center of this debate, is a figure of some controversy. His organization, Students for Fair Admissions, has filed similar suits against the University of Texas at Austin and the University of North Carolina, accusing them of disadvantaging white students in favor of minorities. This time, however, Blum’s organization has gained the support of the Justice Department, who filed a brief in favor of the suit in September. Opponents of affirmative action are hopeful that this suit will set a precedent to challenge previous Supreme Court rulings that have upheld the validity of affirmative action in college admissions.

Harvard fires back, citing a large growth in the admissions rate for Asian-American students.

Harvard has fired back, accusing the plaintiffs of “distorting” the facts and cherry-picking data to suit their case. Harvard also cites that their admissions rate of Asian-American students has grown by 29% in the past decade. They have their own set of supporters, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and over 500 individual social scientists, statisticians, and economists. In addition, over 70 colleges and universities have filed briefs in support of Harvard’s admissions policies.

It’s a well-known fact that colleges such as Harvard do favor certain types of students, such as athletes and legacy students. Harvard itself has never denied that legacy students and athletes have an edge in the admissions process. In the 1980s, the college came under fire for these policies, which – critics argued – heavily favored white applicants over minorities, including Asian-American students. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights stated that these policies were not illegal.  

The outcome could change college admissions.

With the Justice Department on one side, and the ACLU on the other, there is little chance that this suit will be resolved quickly and without controversy. If the suit is successful, the ramifications will be felt far beyond Harvard. What happens this month in a Boston courtroom could change the way we look at admissions across the entire nation.

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