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Court Upholds Harvard’s Race-Conscious Admissions Program

10.1.19

Supporters of affirmative action protest in Harvard Square. A poster reads, "Defend Diversity."

Supporters of affirmative action protested in Harvard Square the day before SFFA v. Harvard went to trial.

Photograph by Liu Jie/Xinhua/Alamy Live News


Supporters of affirmative action protested in Harvard Square the day before SFFA v. Harvard went to trial.

Photograph by Liu Jie/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

Allison Burroughs, the federal judge presiding over the lawsuit arguing that Harvard College’s use of race in admissions discriminates against Asian-Americans, has upheld the University’s admissions program. 

“Harvard’s admissions program has been designed and implemented in a manner that allows every application to be reviewed in a holistic manner consistent with the guidance set forth by the Supreme Court,” her decision reads. The plaintiff in the case “did not present a single admissions file that reflected any discriminatory animus, or even an application of an Asian American who it contended should have or would have been admitted absent an unfairly deflated personal rating.”

The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), alleged in the case filed in 2014 that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in admissions. Part of SFFA’s case rested on Harvard’s practice of assigning applicants subjective “personal” ratings, which the group argued disadvantaged Asian-American applicants. According to Burroughs’s decision, “[T]he Court is unable to identify any individual applicant whose admissions decision was affected and finds that the disparity in the personal ratings did not burden Asian-American applicants significantly more than Harvard’s race-conscious policies burdened white applicants.” 

“Today’s decision 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,” said William Lee ’72, Harvard’s lead lawyer in the case. “It represents a significant victory not merely for Harvard, but  also for all schools and students, for diversity, and for the rule of law.”

 “The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student,” University president Larry Bacow said in a message to the University community. “Everyone admitted to Harvard College has something unique to offer our community, and today we reaffirm the importance of diversity—and everything it represents to the world.”

“SFFA will appeal this decision to the First Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Edward Blum, SFFA’s founder and president, said in a press release. Blum, an opponent of affirmative action, previously initiated Fisher v. University of Texas. In that case, ultimately decided in 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the university’s affirmative-action program.  

Burroughs drew extensively on the Fisher decision in her ruling in SFFA v. Harvard. “Ultimately, the Court finds that Harvard has met its burden of showing that its admissions process complies with the principles articulated by the Supreme Court in Fisher II,” she wrote. In the Fisher case, the Supreme Court specified that college affirmative-action programs had to be tailored narrowly and show that they accomplish a specific goal, and also that colleges must prove that race-based admissions policies are the only way to meet diversity goals.

Burroughs ruled on four separate counts at stake in the case: that Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian-American applicants; that Harvard engages in illegal racial balancing, or a quota; that Harvard places too much emphasis on race so that it is a determinative factor in admissions; and that Harvard hasn’t adequately explored whether there are race-neutral means to reach its diversity goals. 

On each of these counts, Burroughs ruled in Harvard’s favor. “[T]here is no evidence of any racial animus whatsoever or intentional discrimination on the part of Harvard,” she wrote. 

This is a developing story. Please check back soon for updates. 

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