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Harvard’s legacy admission targeted in civil rights complaint, in wake of national affirmative action ban

Harvard Yard at the Harvard University campus in Cambridge.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Mere days after the US Supreme Court struck down race-based affirmative action in college admissions, a new federal complaint is calling for an investigation into Harvard’s admissions practices and an end to so-called legacy and donor-related admissions, which give preference to children of alumni and wealthy donors.

The complaint, which was filed Monday with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by the group Lawyers for Civil Rights, asks federal investigators to “declare that Harvard’s ongoing use of Donor and Legacy Preferences is discriminatory and . . . that, if Harvard wishes to continue receiving federal funds, it must immediately cease considering an applicant’s relationship to Harvard alumni” and donors in the admission process.


A spokesman for Harvard declined to comment on the complaint.

The Supreme Court last week overturned nearly 50 years of precedent when it voted to ban affirmative action in cases involving Harvard and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Following the court ruling, incoming Harvard president Claudine Gay said in a video the university’s commitment to the educational benefits of diversity remains steadfast.

“We continue to believe deeply that a thriving, diverse intellectual community is essential to academic excellence and critical to shaping the next generation of leaders,” Gay said.

Reacting to the court ruling, President Biden said Thursday that “legacy admissions,” or showing preference to the children of alumni, “stand in the way” of campus diversity. Some colleges and universities have already abandoned those practices, including Amherst College and MIT.

“We would like to see a situation where applicants of color have a level playing field to apply and be admitted to Harvard as any other type of candidate would be,” said Michael Kippins, lead attorney in the new complaint, in an interview Monday.


In outlining Harvard’s alleged civil rights violations, the complaint draws heavily on language Supreme Court justices used in their decision last week.

“As the Supreme Court has put it, how else but ‘negative’ can a preference be described ‘if, in its absence, members of some racial groups would be admitted in greater numbers than they otherwise would have been?’” the complaint asks.

Attorneys brought the complaint on behalf of three Black and Latino advocacy groups: Chica Project, The Greater Boston Latino Network, and African Community Economic Development of New England.

“If we’re gonna make affirmative action a problem, then we also have to talk about legacy admissions and the donations at the university,” said Abdi Osman, a rising senior at Harvard and one of several Boston Public Schools graduates who received support from the African Community Economic Development of New England when preparing for college.

Abdi Osman is going into his senior year at Harvard, studying neuroscience. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“A lot of people that attack affirmative action like to say students are just getting in based on their race, not based on merit, but are completely quiet on the fact that a lot of students actually get in because of legacy or because their parents are donors and have connections within this university,” said Osman, 21, whose family is originally from Somalia but moved to the United States before he was born. “There’s no peep about that, and there’s a lot more students who get in that way.”

When Harvard’s internal research office analyzed the school’s admission data in 2013, it found legacy status boosted an applicant’s chance of being admitted more than almost any other variable. Legacy status increased an applicant’s chances slightly more than being Black and nearly twice as much as being Hispanic, according to the Harvard study, which emerged in Students for Fair Admissions’ lawsuit against the university.


A National Bureau of Economic Research analysis of Harvard admissions from 2014 to 2019 similarly concluded that the relatives of wealthy donors were nearly seven times more likely to be admitted than nondonor-related applicants; meanwhile, the children and relatives of alumni were nearly six times more likely to be admitted.

White students represent close to 70 percent of both donor-related and legacy applicants, making the discriminatory results of this preferential treatment “substantial,” according to the complaint.

Amaya Ronczyk, a rising second-year student at Harvard Law, said that as one of a handful of Black students in a roughly 80-person class, she experiences daily the importance of bringing diverse perspectives into the classroom, and called on the university to reconsider a practice that favors applicants based on financial or familial “access, and not necessarily the ability of these students.”

“This decision is about keeping historically disadvantaged people like myself from gaining access to rooms that are going to catapult them to change-making positions,” said Ronczyk, 23. She added that last week’s Supreme Court ruling makes clear that “many people are going to fight and scratch forever to make sure that those rooms don’t get any Blacker or browner, and that’s why it’s important that we consider the role legacy admissions play.”


If an investigation finds legacy and donor-based admissions have a “disproportionate, discriminatory impact,” federal law requires the university prove these preferences are “required by educational necessity,” according to the complaint. Otherwise, Harvard will be forced to either end these legacy preferences, or walk away from the “substantial funding” Kippins said it receives each year in grants and other research awards from the federal government.

Harvard has previously defended legacy admissions by arguing these preferences help the university “cement strong bonds” with and receive “generous financial support” from alumni.

However, the complaint insists the idea that people will stop donating to or affiliating themselves with Harvard solely based on the university’s decision to end preferential treatment “strains logic,” and pointed to the steady increase in alumni donations over the past decade at John Hopkins University, which ended legacy admission in 2014.

“While these goals may serve Harvard as an institution, they are far afield from more traditional educational interests that focus on students — for example, the goals of ‘better educating its students through diversity’ and ‘promoting the robust exchange of ideas,’” the complaint said.

Legacy admissions have recently been the target of attacks from across the political spectrum, including by those who fought to end affirmative action.

Democratic state Representative Simon Cataldo of Concord blasted legacy and donor-based admissions in Massachusetts as “pernicious policies . . . that amount to affirmative action for the rich.”

Cataldo and Senator Pavel Payano of Lawrence introduced a bill to the Legislature that would effectively tax schools that use legacy and donor-related preference — many to the tune of millions of dollars — and redistribute the money to community colleges.


Mary Tamer, director of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts, who testified in favor of ending legacy admissions at a recent State House hearing, said the federal civil rights investigation would represent “an opportunity for Harvard, or for all higher education institutions, to do the right thing.”

While federal investigators will ultimately decide whether to investigate the claims, attorneys said the findings could set a precedent for ending legacy and donor-based admissions not just at Harvard, but for universities across the country.

“The practice itself is at issue, rather than the school,” Kippins said. “So I think the door would be open.”

John Hilliard, Mike Damiano, and Hilary Burns of Globe staff contributed to this report.

Ivy Scott can be reached at Follow her @itsivyscott.