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Harvard urges Supreme Court to sit out affirmative action case

A bicyclist pedaled around the perimeter of Harvard Yard.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

Allegations that Harvard University discriminates against Asian American applicants and significantly factors race into its admissions decisions are warrantless and the US Supreme Court shouldn’t intervene, the college argued in court filings Monday.

Harvard urged the Supreme Court to deny a request from Students for Fair Admissions to review the case, which aims to dismantle the decades-long use of affirmative action in college admissions.

Students for Fair Admissions has sued Harvard, alleging that the Ivy League college gave Asian American applicants lower personal scores on traits such as kindness and leadership, and offered unfair preferences to white, Hispanic, and Black applicants.

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The organization, led by Edward Blum, who has challenged affirmative action on behalf of white students in the past, has asked the Supreme Court to review the case and more broadly bar race-conscious college admissions.

Four justices must agree before the case is taken up by the full court. A decision could come sometime in June.

Legal experts have suggested that with the current six-member conservative majority on the Supreme Court, affirmative action policies are more likely to be overturned or significantly curtailed.

However, the experts disagree on whether the Harvard case will strike the fatal blow and end the more than 40-year use of affirmative action. Previous affirmative action cases have involved public universities.

Blum said Monday that he hopes that the court accepts the case and “ends the use of race in college admissions at Harvard and all colleges and universities.”

“The cornerstone of our nation’s civil rights laws is the principle that a student’s race and ethnicity should not be used to help, or harm, their college admissions prospects,” he said in a statement.

It its latest court filing, Harvard argued that its use of race in admissions is allowed within the law. If there needs to be changes, they should be done through Congress changing statutes and not through the Supreme Court.

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The case has been brought under the Title VI statute, which bars any program that receives federal money, including colleges, from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

“If Congress wanted to amend Title VI to prohibit private universities from considering race in admissions, it could do so, but it has not,” Harvard said in the court filing.

Using race in college admissions has allowed campuses to become more diverse learning environments, Harvard argued, and progress still needs to be made on that front.

“Prohibiting consideration of race now would lead to substantial declines in diversity on many campuses, with significant adverse effects on the educational experiences of all students,” Harvard said in its filing.

If Harvard stopped considering race in admissions, Black student enrollment would decline from 14 percent to 6 percent, and Hispanic student enrollment would decline from 14 percent to 9 percent, the college said.

The case put Harvard’s famously competitive admissions process under the spotlight, underscoring how money and privilege can also be leveraged to win on of the 1,600 freshman class seats every year.

One-third of Harvard’s admitted class is made up of recruited athletes and children of alumni, donors, faculty, or staff, who are disproportionately white and come from higher-income households. And 75 percent of those white students admitted would have been rejected from Harvard without membership in those categories, according to one study.

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E-mails released during a three-week federal district court trial in Boston in 2018 also revealed Harvard administrators weighing how much in donations they could potentially receive from families if they admitted certain students.

Since the trial, Harvard has been admitting an overall more diverse class of students, including a greater share of Asian American students.

In 2019, the share of Asian Americans admitted to Harvard increased to 25.4 percent, after hovering around 22 percent for the three previous years. In 2020, the share of Asian Americans dropped slightly to 24.4 percent but the most recent admitted freshman class includes 27.2 percent Asian American students.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.