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Harvard filed a 93-page brief last week asserting that the university stands by a lower court’s judgement in its affirmative action case. 

A lower court ruled in favor of Harvard last year, upholding the legality of the university’s race-conscious admissions policy. In 2014, anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University for their use of race in admissions. The previous decision, as well as the eventual ruling on its appeal may set a precedent for Yale, whose own practices are currently under investigation by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. 

According to the brief, the lower court decision should be affirmed as it “correctly found that Harvard has established a compelling interest in diversity, considers race as one factor among many, does not pursue racial balancing, and cannot presently achieve its goal of assembling an exceptional and diverse student body using race-neutral alternatives.”

According to the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s position on the issue has not changed since the initial lower court ruling. 

“Yale believes that having a student body and a faculty from around the globe and around the country — including individuals with a wide range of ethnic and racial backgrounds, socioeconomic and family upbringings, gender orientations, talents and skills — enriches Yale’s community in immeasurable ways and prepares our students to lead and succeed in an increasingly diverse global workforce,” Quinlan said. 

All of this comes after the SFFA, led by Edward Blum, filed a brief in February of 2020 with the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the lower court judgement should be reversed. SFFA argued in earlier filings that Harvard “imposes a racial penalty on Asian-American applicants,” “engages in racial balancing” and “has not considered race-neutral alternatives in good faith—let alone availed itself of workable alternatives.”

The case is widely believed to have wide implications for affirmative action in higher education for schools across the country. The Trump administration has also sided with SFFA, endorsing the appeal of the initial ruling. 

According to Adam Mortara, the head lawyer for SFFA, one reason for the presence of race in admissions to increase diversity is to offset the predominately white seats of legacies and recruited athletes. According to Mortara, while there may be a decline in African American and Hispanic without the inclusion of a race factor, this decline could be made up if Harvard would “engage in some modest increases in its socioeconomic preferences for disadvantaged kids, because the course disadvantage itself is disproportionately distributed across racial groups.”

One possible solution suggested by Mortara is for Harvard and similar peer institutions to abandon the presence of legacy status in admissions. 

“If there’s a real change in how the court approaches the permissibility of race based affirmative action and the court [was] to revisit its precedence and ban the consideration of race in higher ed admissions, I think the elite institutions like Harvard would have to choose between their white preferences for legacies and donors and having any diversity on campus,” Mortara said.

As the high-profile lawsuit against Harvard unfolded in the past years, a complaint filed by Asian American Coalition for Education and 132 other Asian American organizations in 2016 put into question how Yale considers race as a factor in their admissions policies. While several experts said the ruling legitimized race-conscious practices at admissions offices across the nation, an AACE representative told the News that they remain staunch in their advocacy for nullifying the race factor. 

AACE’s 2016 complaint — which also levelled allegations against Brown University and Dartmouth College — echoed language from the lawsuit against Harvard. It stated that many selective institutions of higher education, including Yale, have “applied de facto racial quotas, racial stereotypes and higher admissions standards to discriminate against Asian American applicants.”

“I think that more important than quota ruling and legal proceedings are people’s minds and the culture, and currently the culture of higher education mission is not necessarily pro SFFA’s side,” Wenyuan Wu, the Director of Administration for the AACE said. “I don’t think the case will be outcome determinative for admissions processes across the country but it will set an example, if schools use set processes to unfairly hurt one particular group of students, then there will be legal consequences. I think that’s the biggest implication. It takes more to change minds than laws.”

A 2016 Gallup Poll said that 70 percent of Americans support exclusively merit-based admissions to institutions of higher learning.



Kelly Wei | kelly.wei@yale.edu