An ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University for allegedly discriminating against college applicants is moving forward, raising fresh questions about the fairness of Ivy League admissions policies.
In an email to all students who applied to Harvard since 2009, the college reassured students that any application information provided to the courts as part of the lawsuit would be kept confidential. Harvard is required to release to state investigators its admissions data from the last six years of first-year and transfer applications, impacting hundreds of thousands of students.
In compliance with the court order, Harvard will begin releasing this information to court on Friday.
The lawsuit, filed by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, alleges that Harvard illegally discriminated against Asian-American applicants by setting quotas for the racial group.
“The aim for SFFA is to eliminate racial classification and racial preference in the admissions process at all American colleges and universities,” said Edward Blum, SFFA leader and conservative legal strategist. “Harvard, we allege, has an unfair, unconstitutional quota that limits the amount of Asian students it will accept, much like the quota it had in the 1920s, 30s and 40s limiting the number of Jewish students it would admit.”
SFFA has also filed a similar lawsuit against the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. And in May, a coalition of more than 100 Asian American organizations filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice over claims that Yale and other Ivy Leagues schools unlawfully discriminated in admissions.
In the recent lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs asked Harvard to provide the academic, extracurricular and demographic information of its applicants. Earlier this month, Harvard announced that this information would not include the names or social security numbers of applicants and promised that strict confidentiality rules would prevent the data from being shared outside the lawsuit. Harvard stated on an FAQ link in its email to former applicants that it believes that the allegations are without merit, and said it will defend its admissions practices.
All eight Ivy League schools cite a commitment to diversity on their admissions websites, and several challenges to the legality of Ivy League admissions policies have come to naught.
“Yale aims to cultivate citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said. He added that to this end, Yale has long demonstrated a strong commitment to diversity in admissions, including the admission of students from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In September 2015, after Princeton had two complaints alleging that its admissions policy denied Asian applicants entry on the basis of race or national origin, the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education issued a review that stated these complaints were ungrounded. The OCR wrote that Princeton “pursued a broad definition of diversity, for which race and national origin were among many other factors that were considered in the University’s effort to assemble broadly diverse classes of students.”
And in June, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas has the right to consider race in admissions decisions, setting a controversial precedent for policies at private universities like Yale.
Still, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his majority opinion that the University of Texas case would likely not set a significant precedent because UT Austin has a unusual admissions policy which guarantees spots to students in the top 10 percent of their classes at Texas public schools.
Alice Yang ’19 said that while she thought that the issues SFFA brought up were “tricky,” she still thought that there should be race-based considerations in admissions.
“It is more important for minorities that are even more underrepresented than Asians to have opportunities that wouldn’t be as accessible to them,” Yang said. “It seems instead that colleges ought to turn their attention toward achieving socioeconomic diversity.”
Blum said the Supreme Court ruled 50 years ago against racial quotas of any kind in higher education, which he believes makes Harvard’s current admissions practices unconstitutional. Blum said he believes the lawsuit will show that Harvard sets racial quotas in its offers of admission.
Blum added that this summer’s ruling in favor of the University of Texas would not influence SFFA’s current litigation against Harvard. Blum also said that the SFFA believes colleges and universities “should consider the socioeconomic background of its applicants in order to create a fully rounded student body,” not any information about “a student’s skin color or ethnic heritage.”
Still, Kennedy acknowledged the importance of enrolling a diverse student body, which he said promotes “cross-racial understanding, helps to break down racial stereotypes, and enables students to better understand persons of different races.”
Harvard admitted 5.2 percent of applicants to its class of 2020.
Correction, Oct. 27: A previous version of this article misidentified Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy as Robert Kennedy.