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Complaint alleging Harvard bias against Asians dismissed

People walk past Harvard University t-shirts for sale in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts in this November 16, 2012 file photo. To match Special Report USA-HARVARD/DISCRIMINATION REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi/Files
Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
The US Department of Education has dismissed a complaint by Asian-American groups alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants.

The US Department of Education has dismissed a complaint by Asian-American groups alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, the federal agency said Wednesday.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights cited a similar lawsuit pending in federal court as its reason for dismissing the complaint, which was filed by the Asian American Coalition in May, according to Dorie Nolt, the US Department of Education’s press secretary.

The coalition, which has more than 60 member groups, alleges that Asian students with near-perfect entrance exam scores and grades, and stellar extracurricular activities are more likely to be rejected for admission to Harvard than similar applicants of other races.

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“Although this is a small setback, we’re still going forward,” Yukong Zhao, a spokesman for the Asian American Coalition, said of the agency’s decision.

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Harvard has denied any bias against Asian students. In the past decade, Asian-American students went from constituting 17.6 percent of admitted undergraduates to 21 percent, the Cambridge school said.

“Harvard College has demonstrated a strong record of recruiting and admitting Asian-American students,” the university said in a statement Wednesday.

Another group, Students for Fair Admissions Inc., has a lawsuit pending against Harvard in federal court that seeks to prevent the university from considering race as part of the admissions process.

Zhao said his coalition plans to encourage students who feel they are victims of recent discrimination by Ivy League schools to file individual complaints with the Department of Education.

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The coalition also plans to file complaints against other universities that do not have lawsuits pending against them, Zhao said.

The group said it has also filed a complaint with the US Department of Justice, but does not know whether an investigation has been launched.

In May, after the Asian American Coalition filed its complaint, Harvard’s chief legal counsel said the school’s admissions policies comply with the law and create a diverse student body.

“We will vigorously defend the right of Harvard, and other universities, to continue to seek the educational benefits that come from a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions,” Robert Iuliano said in a statement at the time.

Not all Asians feel discriminated against, said University of California Irvine professor Jennifer Lee, a sociologist who studies race and ethnicity . Many students want to be part of a diverse student body, she said.

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Those who filed the complaint place too much importance on being admitted to an Ivy League school, Lee said, and don’t realize that if race is eliminated as a part of admissions, other types of bias could hurt Asians even more, such as admitting more students whose parents attended the school.

“They’re shooting themselves in the foot by opposing these policies,” Lee said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com.