Harvard faces new challenge to legacy and donor preferences
Following the recent Supreme Court ruling that rejected Harvard’s consideration of race in admissions, the Ivy League university has become the target of a new civil complaint alleging that its preference for legacy and donor-related applicants violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Phuc Duong, Contributing Photographer
A civil rights group announced Monday that it will challenge donor and legacy admissions preferences at Harvard University.
The complaint, which could force Harvard and other universities to stop giving admissions preferences to children of alumni and prominent donors, closely follows last week’s landmark Supreme Court decision restricting the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Lawyers for Civil Rights filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of three Black and Latine advocacy groups, alleging that Harvard’s donor and legacy admissions preferences violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by disproportionately favoring white applicants.
According to recent studies cited in the complaint, nearly 70 percent of Harvard’s donor-related and legacy applicants are white. Rates of admission are nearly seven times higher for donor-related applicants than for non-donor-related applicants and nearly six times higher for legacies than for non-legacies.
“Harvard’s practice of giving a leg-up to the children of wealthy donors and alumni — who have done nothing to deserve it — must end,” said Michael Kippins, a litigation fellow at Lawyers for Civil Rights, in Monday’s announcement. “Particularly in light of last week’s decision from the Supreme Court, it is imperative that the federal government act now to eliminate this unfair barrier that systematically disadvantages students of color.”
At Yale, legacy students make up approximately 12 percent of the class of 2026, 14 percent of the class of 2025 and 8 percent of the class of 2024. Despite widespread student advocacy against legacy preference, including two Yale College Council resolutions in the past two years, opposing the practice, university officials have remained fiercely supportive of legacy admissions.
Last February, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan submitted written testimony to the Connecticut General Assembly in support of legacy admissions. He argued that while universities could voluntarily stop employing legacy preference, a state bill making it a requirement would pave the way for “other intrusions on academic freedom.”
“Even without [legacy] preference, students with more resources will still have an advantage in college admissions, just as they have an advantage in securing a good job and in many other aspects of daily life,” Quinlan wrote. “Instead, the state should support schools in their efforts to identify, recruit, and graduate low-income and first-generation students.”
Monday’s complaint explicitly draws on the Supreme Court’s majority opinion from last week’s Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, in which the Court declared race-conscious admissions unconstitutional on the grounds that affirmative action benefits Black and Hispanic applicants at the expense of white and Asian ones.
Part of the Court’s decision in SFFA v. Harvard noted that the use of affirmative action violated a legal principle called the strict scrutiny standard, which dictates that any explicit racial consideration can only be deemed constitutional if all other possible methods of promoting racial diversity have already been implemented. Given that legacy preferences favor a group of applicants that is mostly white, the Court’s concurring opinions noted that both legacy-preferential and race-conscious admissions cannot stand concurrently.
After the Court’s repeal of affirmative action, the Yale College Council sent an open letter to University President Peter Salovey, Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis and Quinlan urging that they reconsider legacy preference. The YCC said that while the University has come out staunchly against the Court’s decision to bar race-conscious admissions, it must back its words with “decisive action.”
“We are struck by the irony of continued consideration of an arbitrary privilege in the face of new restrictions in ensuring diversity on college campuses,” the Council wrote in its letter.
University spokesperson Karen Peart referred to a June 29 message from Quinlan and Lewis to the Yale College community, in which the administrators said that they would “closely examine” the University’s admissions process in light of the Supreme Court decision and “consider new programs and initiatives.”
YCC vice president Maya Fonkeu ’25 referred to previous YCC resolutions against legacy preference and to the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic ideologies that have historically motivated such practices.
“President Salovey said that Yale has an ‘unwavering commitment to creating and sustaining a diverse and inclusive community’ in his response to the SCOTUS decisions,” Fonkeu said, quoting from Salovey’s message to the Yale community after the fall of affirmative action. “Ending legacy admissions is one way to make good on that promise.”
Fonkeu added that she hopes the University will move to a permanent test-optional admissions model — a change that, over the last three admissions cycles, has been associated with greater racial diversity in the applicant pool.
In its letter, the YCC also asked the University to implement measures aimed at improving campus diversity and inclusivity beyond the admissions process. This includes committing to meet with campus advocacy groups run by communities of color, increasing funding to existing cultural houses and granting a new cultural center for Middle Eastern and North African students.
“At this critical juncture, it’s even more important that the University engages with the student advocacy groups that have historically championed diversity on campus,” YCC president Julian Suh-Toma ’25 wrote to the News. “Communities of color at Yale have long safeguarded and advocated for equity and diversity, and these tragic unfortunate present circumstances give the University an opportunity to recognize the value of cultural student advocacy spaces by giving them a seat at the table.”
Although SFFA — the group that waged and won a decades-long legal battle against affirmative action — has thus far dedicated all its resources to striking down affirmative action, founder Edward Blum told the News a year and a half ago that SFFA opposes legacy preference in admissions. He said the practice “inhibit[s] and diminish[es] the opportunities of applicants from modest socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Blum declined to provide further comment for this story.
Amherst College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, Purdue University and Johns Hopkins University have all recently done away with legacy admission preferences.
Correction, July 4: Supreme Court justices argued in concurring opinions that legacy preference and race-conscious admissions cannot concurrently stand. This was not explicitly part of the ruling, as a previous version of this article stated.
Update, July 5: This article has been updated to include a new statement from Yale College Council president Julian Suh-Toma.