After months of waiting, college officials breathe sigh of relief over decision in Harvard case

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Since closing arguments in February, higher education officials across the country had waited anxiously for a decision in the lawsuit against Harvard University’s use of race in admissions decisions, a case that posed a major challenge to affirmative action policies on college campuses.

On Tuesday, many breathed a sigh of relief when US District Judge Allison Burroughs upheld the university’s process, providing assurance — at least for now — that race can continue to be one of many factors in admissions.

Brown University called the decision “a reaffirmation that a diverse student body brings educational benefits to the entire student body,” spokesman Brian Clark said.


“Like other colleges and universities, we plan to conduct a thorough legal review of the 130-page opinion to understand what, if any, specific implications it has for our admissions practices,” Clark said. “For now, we understand that the decision upholds the right to continue to consider race as one factor among many in our admissions process.”

Students for Fair Admissions, which filed the lawsuit alleging Harvard’s admissions process discriminated against Asian-American applicants, said it would appeal the decision, which many observers believe will ultimately go to the Supreme Court.

The Justice Department also filed documents last year on behalf of the plaintiffs, saying the Harvard admissions process “may be infected with racial bias.”

But for now, the ruling upholds nearly 40 years of Supreme Court precedent and heartens academics who believe that race — alongside many other factors — should be considered in admissions.

“A lot of people imagine that this is a level playing field for everyone, but in fact it’s not," said Matt Proto, dean of admissions at Colby College. “This is obviously something that we were keeping an eye on.”

Proto said Colby, a liberal arts college in Waterville, Maine, uses a “holistic admissions process” that incorporates factors such as “personal context, educational context,” and a student’s individual background. “We want to enroll the most talented students from all backgrounds,” he said.


Simmons University president Helen Drinan also backed the ruling. “We’re supportive of the outcome and what they’re trying to accomplish,” Drinan said of the decision and the Harvard admissions process.

She said affirmative-action policies should continue to have strong support at many American colleges and universities that recognize the value of diversity in their missions.

At Amherst College, where 45 percent of students identify as persons of color, president Biddy Martin said the decision “affirms the importance and constitutionality of race-conscious admissions as part of a holistic review of applicants to our colleges and universities.

“Our society depends for its well-being on the identification and development of talent wherever it exists,” Martin said.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, said that if Harvard had lost the case “it would have had an unhappy consequence for higher education across the country.”

Creating a diverse admissions policy is “not an easy jigsaw puzzle to put together,” he said, and is far more complex than “mindlessly admitting the people with the highest admissions scores.”

Trachtenberg said administrators must consider a dizzying list of factors when putting together a class each year, including students who have the ability to pay and those who need financial aid, as well as a balance of gender, geography, race, and sexual orientation.

“You are trying to get people from the West and Midwest and overseas,” Trachtenberg said. “You need someone from the basketball team but also somebody for the band. And so on and so on.”


However, Lawrence Friedman, a professor at New England Law Boston, said the ruling makes clear that Harvard’s policy “is not perfect” and that the school is relying on statistics in ways the Supreme Court has not contemplated.

“I would bet that this is going to be appealed to the First Circuit of Appeals, which means that as interesting as this is, it would not be the last word,” said Friedman, who teaches constitutional law.

At other Ivy League universities, the ruling was welcomed.

“We supported Harvard’s position on the consideration of race and ethnicity in the admission process in accordance with the law,” said Ben Chang, a spokesman for Princeton University.

Princeton considers a diverse student body “of profound importance to our educational mission.’’

Yale University officials also applauded the decision, which spokeswoman Karen Peart said reaffirms Supreme Court precedent “holding that universities may consider race and ethnicity as part of a review process designed to obtain the crucial educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

Daniel McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie @globe.com, Kay Lazar at kay.lazar@globe.com.