Federal Court rules Harvard's admission policies were not discriminatory

BOSTON—A federal judge has ruled Harvard University's admission's policies were not discriminatory and its affirmative action program was not found to be in violation of constitutional precedent. The ruling came out of a U.S. District Court in Boston on Oct. 1.

Judge Allison D. Burroughs issued her ruling in a case brought against Harvard University by Students for Fair Admissions, which claims to be an anti-affirmative action organization. Students for Fair Admission filed its federal lawsuit against Harvard in 2014, claiming Asian Americans were discriminated against due to the school's race conscious admissions policy.

University officials, according to Burroughs, acknowledged race is a factor in Harvard's admissions process, but it is "one factor among many" and the use of race "is consistent with applicable law."

Students for Fair Admissions specifically argued Harvard's use of race in its undergraduate admissions process was too narrow. Harvard, according to the Students for Fair Admissions complaint, pursued racial classifications to discriminate against Asian Americans.

"Statistical evidence reveals that Harvard used 'holistic' admissions to disguise the fact that it holds Asian Americans to a far higher standard than other students and essentially forces them to compete against each other for admission," the Students for Fair Admission complaint stated. "There is nothing high-minded about this campaign of invidious discrimination."

Did Harvard's undergraduate admissions policies unduly harm Asian American applicants? Burroughs said no.

"The lack of a statistically significant penalty against Asian American applicants relative to white applicants suggests that the burden Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy places on Asian American applicants is not undue," Burroughs said in her ruling.

The federal judge addressed another question: why were Asian American applicants scoring lower on Harvard's personal rating standard, and does this lower rating unfairly affect admission to the university?

"It is possible that the self-selected group of Asian Americans that applied to Harvard during the years included in the data set used in this case did not possess the personal qualities that Harvard is looking for at the same rate as white applicants, just as it is possible that the self- selected white applicants tend to have somewhat weaker academic qualifications than Asian American applicants," Burroughs said. "In other words, assuming Asian American and white applicants have the same academic and extracurricular potential and the same quality of personal attributes as demographic groups, it could be that asymmetric portions of each of these groups apply to Harvard."

Burroughs, in her ruling, stated there is sufficient evidence to show Harvard makes every effort to cast as wide a net as possible to attract the most diverse class possible with each admissions year.

"Despite these efforts," Burroughs wrote in her ruling, "African American and Hispanic applicants remain a relatively modest portion of Harvard’s applicant pool, together accounting for only about 20 percent of domestic applicants to Harvard each year, even though those groups make up slightly more than 30 percent of the population of the United States."

"In contrast, Asian American high school students have accounted for approximately 22 percent of total applicants in recent years, although Asian Americans make up less than six percent of the national population," Burroughs continued.

The federal judge acknowledged Harvard implements a holistic review in its admissions process.

"Admissions officers attempt to make collective judgments about each applicant’s personality, intellectual curiosity, character, intelligence, perspective, and skillset and to evaluate each applicant’s accomplishments in the context of his or her personal and socioeconomic circumstances, all with the aim of making admissions decisions based on a more complete understanding of an applicant’s potential than can be achieved by relying solely on objective criteria," Burroughs said in her ruling.

Harvard, ultimately, has a "substantial and compelling" interest in student body diversity," Burroughs said.

"Racial categorizations are necessary to achieve ... goals [of student body diversity and broadening perspectives of teachers]," according to Burroughs. "In the absence of such categorizations, racial diversity at Harvard would likely decline so precipitously that Harvard would be unable to offer students the diverse environment that it reasonably finds necessary to its mission."

Burroughs continued Harvard has the right to pursue an admissions program where a race-conscious approach is narrowly tailored but flexible enough to provide contextual decisions. She added Harvard's admissions process is not perfect, but its imperfections is not sufficient enough to legal overturn the university's practices.

"The process would likely benefit from conducting implicit bias trainings for admissions officers, maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race in the admissions process, which were developed during this litigation, and monitoring and making admissions officers aware of any significant race-related statistical disparities in the rating process. That being said, the Court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better," Burroughs said.

"There is always the specter of perfection, but strict scrutiny does not require it and a few identified imperfections, after years of litigating and sifting through applications and metrics, do not alone require a finding that Harvard’s admissions program is not narrowly tailored," Burroughs continued.