fb-pixel Skip to main content

The Harvard affirmative action case has already been decided

The Supreme Court has asked the Biden administration to weigh in. But the answer should already be clear: Let the lower courts’ rulings stand.

The Harvard College campus in 2013.
The Harvard College campus in 2013.Josh Reynolds

Seven years ago, Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative-action advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against Harvard College that alleged that the school’s consideration of race as a factor in undergraduate admissions resulted in discrimination against Asian Americans. The case, which garnered national attention for its potential to effectively end affirmative action policies at universities, dragged on for five years until a federal judge correctly ruled that Harvard’s admissions program is, in fact, constitutional.

But now, in what always seemed all but inevitable in this case, the lawsuit is closer than ever to making it to the US Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative majority gives anti-affirmative-action activists hope for a major win — or, to put it more accurately, a chance to deliver a devastating blow to racial equality. Earlier this week, the court asked the Biden administration to weigh in on whether the justices should hear the case. But the answer should already be clear: Let the lower courts’ rulings stand.


It’s no secret that university admissions programs are far from perfect. In fact, the lower court said as much in examining the case. But as has already been made clear, Harvard’s use of race as a factor in admissions is in line with Supreme Court precedent — including that of a case from only five years ago — that race ought to narrowly be used in order to promote diversity on college campuses.

This is not to say that there are absolutely no biases against Asian Americans in college admissions. To the contrary, evidence unearthed in this case has shown that Harvard itself had consistently given Asian American applicants lower scores on admissions factors like “personality traits,” and some Asian American students have felt the need to “appear less Asian” on their college applications.


But the reality is that those examples indicate flaws in the admissions process that are rooted in implicit biases and stereotyping — flaws that must be addressed, as promised by the university — rather than a kind of systemic discrimination that denies Asian Americans the opportunity to attend elite colleges on account of their race. After all, while Asian Americans constitute about 6 percent of the US population, over a fifth of students on Harvard’s campus are of Asian descent, a number that has steadily risen over the last decade.

Banning universities from using race or ethnicity as a factor in admissions would only make the goal of achieving racial equality ever harder to reach. Harvard’s own projections show that without affirmative action policies in place, the total Black and Hispanic student population would be cut by nearly half. Black student enrollment in particular would drop from 14 percent to only 6 percent. And while the overall Asian American population at the school might slightly increase by a couple of percentage points without affirmative-action policies, systematically disadvantaged subgroups within the Asian American community who are currently underrepresented in elite schools, such as those of Cambodian or Hmong descent, would probably face more hurdles to getting admitted.

The truth is that the lawsuit against Harvard is akin to the many racist policies that are promoted today: It’s a means to advance discrimination and racist ideas cloaked in an antidiscrimination guise. The founder of Students for Fair Admissions, Edward Blum, is a fierce opponent of affirmative action and had previously recruited white students to sue schools for supposedly being turned down because of their race. Now he’s alleging that Asian Americans are being discriminated against, but the end result he is looking for is the same: a significant influx of white students at elite schools, and less diverse campuses across the country.


In the end, admissions processes are in need of an overhaul in order to sustain a diverse student body in the long term. That’s why this editorial board has argued in the past for eliminating preferences for the children of alumni and reconsidering the need for standardized tests in college applications, for example. The pandemic has created an opportunity for schools to experiment with those kinds of reforms. But none of the solutions to finding a more equitable approach to admissions include nixing affirmative-action policies. Doing so would only further promote racial inequality in an already unequal society, all while making affirmative-action policies more necessary than ever.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.