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Group suing Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill over affirmative action asks Supreme Court to hear both cases together

Pedestrians walk past a Harvard University building in CambridgeScott Eisen/Getty

The group targeting affirmative action policies at both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is asking the Supreme Court to hear both cases together.

Students for Fair Admissions sued both schools on the same day in 2014, accusing them of racial discrimination over admissions policies that aim to make campuses more racially diverse.

“The Harvard case challenges racial preferences at the nation’s oldest private college, and this case challenges racial preferences at the nation’s oldest public college,” states a petition the group filed in the UNC case on Thursday.

The latest development in a years-long legal battle poses a new threat to colleges’ efforts to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students on campus. Here’s a look at how the case has evolved.


Earlier court rulings

A federal appeals court has already backed Harvard’s use of race in admissions and said that the college’s practices are in line with current law. Last month, a district court judge also sided with UNC Chapel Hill.

Students for Fair Admission’s petition to the Supreme Court argues that the UNC Chapel Hill case should be fast-tracked and heard with the Harvard case, something the Supreme Court has done in the past when there are pending cases dealing with similar issues.

In June, the Supreme Court deferred its decision on whether to hear the case accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans, asking the Biden administration to weigh in. The administration has not yet filed its view on the case.

The Trump administration had backed Students for Fair Admissions, led by Edward Blum, against Harvard. Legal experts expect the Biden administration to take the opposite view and to defend colleges’ ability to consider race as a factor in college admissions.

Many colleges and affirmative action advocates have feared that with a 6-3 conservative majority on the bench, the Supreme Court may be ready to overturn affirmative action and reverse decades of precedent.


Focus on Asian-American students

Unlike previous affirmative action challenges, which have been brought on behalf of white students, the Harvard case centers around whether Asian American students are discriminated against because of affirmative action policies.

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

Edward Blum, who leads Students for Fair Admissions, has challenged affirmative action on behalf of white students in the past.

Harvard has argued that the use of race in college admissions has transformed campuses into more diverse learning environments and that the work is incomplete.

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.

After the case went to trial, the share of Asian American students admitted into Harvard increased to 25.4 percent in 2019, after hovering around 22 percent for the three previous years. The most recent admitted freshman class includes 27.2 percent Asian American students.

Sahar Fatima can be reached at sahar.fatima@globe.com Follow her @sahar_fatima.