Harvard University just won another round in a closely watched legal bout over the use of race conscious admissions.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on Thursday ruled that the Ivy League institution does not discriminate against Asian American applicants. The university’s consideration of race and ethnicity, the court said in a lengthy opinion,
is consistent with precedents affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling was a defeat for Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, which sued Harvard in 2014. The group alleged that the university had intentionally discriminated against Asian American applicants; illegally sought to “balance” its incoming
classes by race through the use of quotas; considered race as more than a “plus” factor in admissions decisions; and ignored the existence of race-neutral alternatives for achieving diversity.
Lawyers for Harvard and SFFA squared off during an exhausting three-week trial at a federal courthouse in Boston two years ago. Then last fall, Allison D. Burroughs, the federal district judge who heard the case, ruled that Harvard’s race-conscious
admissions practices were constitutional, finding no evidence of racial animus.
“Ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race-conscious admissions,” she wrote in her opinion. “The use of race benefits certain racial and ethnic groups that would otherwise be underrepresented at Harvard and is therefore
neither an illegitimate use of race or reflective of racial prejudice.”
SFFA appealed that decision. A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court heard the group’s arguments in September. It also heard from the Justice Department, which has thrown its weight behind SFFA. During the proceedings, an assistant attorney
general told the court that Harvard’s use of race was “expansive” and “pervasive,” in contrast with the University of Texas at Austin’s race conscious admissions program, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in
The appeals court was not convinced by those arguments. Its detailed opinion affirms the federal district judge’s finding that Harvard did not violate federal civil-rights laws barring racial discrimination. The university’s narrowly tailored
use of race, the court wrote, furthers its compelling interest in student diversity and passes the “strict scrutiny” standard.
Moreover, the court rejected SFFA’s assertion that Harvard uses race in a “mechanical” way, giving a predefined boost to some applicants but not others. “Harvard’s use of race in admissions is contextual, and it does
not consider race exclusively,” the court’s opinion says. “Harvard’s process does not weigh race so heavily that it becomes mechanical and decisive in practice.” In other words, the university’s holistic review
of applicants is sufficiently holistic.