Harvard University is preparing for what is likely to be the fiercest attack yet on its use of race in student admissions and a court case that could fundamentally transform the legal landscape on affirmative action.
In anticipation of court filings on Friday by a group representing Asian-Americans who contend that they were unfairly denied admissions to Harvard, outgoing university president Drew Faust went on the offensive.
In a letter sent to the university community on Tuesday, Faust called the claims of discrimination by the group, Students for Fair Admissions, “inaccurate.”
“These claims will rely on misleading, selectively presented data taken out of context,” Faust said. “Their intent is to question the integrity of the undergraduate admissions process and to advance a divisive agenda.”
The case is likely to go to trial this fall in US District Court in Boston, and may ultimately be decided years from now by the US Supreme Court. It is being closely watched by the Department of Justice, legal experts, and advocacy groups, for in several ways it opens a new front in the battle over affirmative action.
Previous decisive cases centered on whether white students were disadvantaged by the use of race in college admissions, and involved public, not private, universities.
“This is the best known university in the country that has a bull’s-eye on it,” said Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a trade group representing college presidents.
But the question of how to achieve racial diversity on campus — and the government’s role in those decisions — is “a fundamental concern to all colleges and universities,” Hartle said.
Edward Blum, who leads Students for Fair Admissions, was previously involved in an affirmative action case against the University of Texas involving a white student. There, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that colleges could continue to use race as one of several admission factors, as long as the schools could show they could not achieve diversity through other ways.
Neither Harvard nor Blum would disclose what they expect to say in court filings Friday. But each is likely to offer its own analysis of Harvard’s admissions data.
On Tuesday, Blum declined to comment on Faust’s letter, saying he would “let our forthcoming filing speak for itself.”
Attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions have reviewed thousands of documents on the inner workings of the Harvard application and decision process, along with internal e-mails. They have also questioned the university’s admissions officers about how they decide who gets into the Ivy League school.
Some of the documents filed on Friday will include redacted information, and US District Court Judge Allison Burroughs will decide what can be released and become part of the public record.
Harvard University has fought hard to keep much of the information private, arguing that it contains sensitive information about students and trade secrets about how it evaluates freshman candidates.
At issue is whether Harvard has a cap on the number of Asian-American students it admits every year.
Harvard has argued that it strives to create a diverse student body and considers a multitude of factors in offering admissions, from students’ test scores, to their backgrounds and even their ambitions. In her letter to the university community, Faust said Harvard’s approach is both legal and fair.
Of the nearly 2,000 students admitted into the incoming freshman class at Harvard, around 23 percent are Asian-Americans, while African-Americans make up about 16 percent, Latinos about 12 percent, and Native Americans about 2 percent. The remaining students are white.
Still, some Asian-Americans have complained they have to meet a higher academic bar for admissions at elite universities. They point to a 2009 study by a Princeton University sociologist that showed that Asian-American students had to score 140 points higher than white students on their SATs, and much higher still than Hispanics and African-Americans to gain entrance into elite colleges. That research, however, did not consider other factors colleges use, such as extracurricular activities, recommendation letters or essays, and counselor letters.
In 2015, after a nine-year investigation into allegations of bias against Asian-American applicants at Princeton University, the Department of Education cleared the school. Federal officials determined that Asian-Americans had a hard time getting into Princeton — but so did everybody else.
Opponents of affirmative action have found allies in the Trump administration. The Department of Justice last year launched its own investigation of Harvard’s admissions polices, and has filed documents in court in support of Blum’s group.
While the Supreme Court has previously upheld the use of race in college admissions, that could change by the time it reviews this lawsuit, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law at the University of California.
“There is the prospect that when it goes to the Supreme Court there will be different justices and ones more hostile to affirmative action,” Chemerinsky said.