A Massachusetts US District Court judge delivered a clear-cut victory to Harvard University Tuesday, ruling that its admissions process does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants and knocking back efforts to overturn affirmative action in higher education.
In a closely watched case that is likely to ripple across the country, US District Judge Allison Burroughs ruled that while Harvard could improve its admissions process with more training and monitoring, it is “very fine,” legally sound, and uses race only in a narrow way.
The “Court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better,” Burroughs wrote in a 130-page decision. Her ruling comes nearly a year after the trial that pitted Harvard against Students for Fair Admissions, a group that alleged the university’s admissions process disadvantaged Asian-American students.
In her decision, Burroughs quoted both Supreme Court precedent and African-American novelist Toni Morrison, in offering a robust defense for the use of race in college admissions. The Supreme Court’s expectation in 2003 that affirmative action would be a short-term solution may prove to be too optimistic as the country continues to grapple with, “the effects of entrenched racism and unequal opportunity,” Burroughs wrote.
“The wise and esteemed author Toni Morrison observed, ‘Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It’s real information, but it tells you next to nothing,’ ” Burroughs, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote. “Although this has been said, it must become accepted and understood before we close the curtain on race-conscious admissions policies.”
The decision is likely to be appealed and could eventually be overturned by the more conservative Supreme Court. But for now it should reassure other universities that they can continue to use race as one factor in their admissions decisions, legal experts said.
Harvard officials and civil rights groups applauded the decision Tuesday.
It “unequivocally affirms that Harvard does not discriminate on the basis of race in its admissions process, and that Harvard’s pursuit of the diverse student body central to its educational mission is lawful,” said William Lee, an attorney with WilmerHale, who represented Harvard in the case and is also a member of the university’s governing board. “It represents a significant victory not merely for Harvard, but also for all schools and students, for diversity, and for the rule of law.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., said the decision reaffirms the critical importance of using race as a factor in admissions. The organization represented several black, Hispanic, and Asian Harvard student and alumni groups in the case.
“We know there are many more steps to go,” Ifill said about the continued legal challenges. “We’re deeply gratified by the decision.”
Ed Blum, the leader of Students for Fair Admissions, who also unsuccessfully challenged the University of Texas’s affirmative action process several years ago, said his group will appeal the decision, “if necessary, to the US Supreme Court.”
“Students for Fair Admissions is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies,” Blum said in a statement. “We believe that the documents, e-mails, data analysis, and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian-American applicants.”
Asian-American groups that supported Blum’s efforts called Burroughs’ ruling a “whitewashing of Harvard’s discriminatory admissions practices.”
“Today marks a dark day for millions of Asian-American children nationwide,” said Yukong Zhao, the president of the Asian American Coalition for Education.
Harvard’s most recent admitted class was 46 percent white and 25 percent Asian-American. Black students made up 14 percent of the class and Hispanic students accounted for 12 percent. Harvard has said it considers dozens of factors in offering admissions, including academics, extracurriculars, and family background.
Blum and his organization had alleged that Harvard’s admissions policies were unfair to Asian-American students, who performed well academically and participated in many extracurricular activities, but received poor personal scores from the university’s screeners. Their case relied heavily on statistics but no student testified during the trial that they were discriminated against by Harvard.
They argued that Harvard unlawfully sought to racially balance its classes.
Burroughs was unconvinced.
“The Court concludes that while the admissions process may be imperfect, the statistical disparities between applicants from different racial groups on which SFFA’s case rests are not the result of any racial animus or conscious prejudice and finds that Harvard’s admissions program is narrowly tailored to achieve a diverse class and the benefits that flow therefrom,” Burroughs wrote.
Burroughs acknowledged that Asian-American applicants overall received lower personal scores, which measure qualities such as courage and kindness, but said the reasons for the disparities were unclear and may be due to high school counselor and teacher recommendations and may be the result of implicit bias.
“SFFA did not present a single Asian American applicant who was overtly discriminated against or who was better qualified than an admitted white applicant when considering the full range of factors that Harvard values in its admissions process,” Burroughs wrote. “The statistics themselves are alone not enough to cause the Court to conclude that Harvard has engaged in improper intentional discrimination.”
Whether the Harvard case makes it to the Supreme Court is unclear. Students for Fair Admissions has also filed a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a judge there decided earlier this week that the case will proceed to trial.
Since the Harvard case was so reliant on dueling interpretations of statistics — one from Harvard and the other from Students for Fair Admissions — a higher court could come to a different conclusion, said Vikram David Amar, the dean of the University of Illinois College of Law.
“This is a first round in a longer game,” Amar said. “I don’t know if this is a case where there’ll be a ton of deference. The appellate court will have leeway to interpret it differently.”
On Harvard’s campus Tuesday, students said the case and decision has raised crucial issues on race, access, and fairness in college admissions.
The trial forced Harvard to reveal closely kept aspects of its admissions process, including the importance it places on athletes, children of donors and alumni, and how it goes about reviewing applicants.
George, an Asian-American Harvard sophomore who declined to give his last name, said the lawsuit brought “important faults to light.”
“In America, the ideal is that anyone regardless of background can have full access to opportunity — the bigger issue to me is legacies, athletics, and donors lists,” he said.
Katherine Tian, a freshman at Harvard undergraduate studies, says diversity is crucial, and one of the things that she most looked forward to about attending college was leaving the “echo chamber” of her home in the Silicon Valley.
“Not all achievement can be seen through numbers,” Tian said. “Each person has wisdom that can be shared from personal experience. The general way Harvard goes about [admissions] isn’t inherently bad as long as they are really careful.”
In a letter to the community Tuesday, Harvard president Larry Bacow said diversity brings opportunities and challenges.
“The power of American higher education stems from a devotion to learning from our differences,” Bacow wrote. “Affirming that promise will make our colleges, and our society, stronger still.”
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Globe correspondent Sofia Saric contributed to this report. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.