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Court decision in Harvard case is an important victory for affirmative action

The steps of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. A federal judge on Tuesday rejected claims that Harvard had discriminated against Asian-Americans in admissions, saying that the university had a right to choose a diverse class. Gretchen Ertl/New York Times

HARVARD UNIVERSITY WON the first battle in the legal war over its affirmative action policies on Tuesday, when a federal judge in Boston ruled that its race-conscious admissions system for undergraduate students was constitutional. The 130-page ruling, written by US District Judge Allison Burroughs, is unlikely to be the last word in a case that seems destined for the Supreme Court. But it did clear away some of the fog that the plaintiffs tried to inject into the case, and handed a crucial victory to proponents of diversity in higher education.

Legal challenges against college admission programs have proliferated in recent years, often funded by right-wing groups, but the case against Harvard came with a novel twist. Typically, plaintiffs have argued that programs that give preference to black and Latino students deny spots to white applicants with better grades or test scores. In the Harvard case, though, the plaintiff, a group called Students for Fair Admissions, claimed to speak for a different group: Asian-American applicants. The plaintiffs argued the university discriminated against Asians in favor of less qualified white, black, and Latino applicants, and that the university’s race-conscious affirmative action program was to blame.


Asian-Americans do face unique challenges in college admissions, their academic achievements diminished by model-minority stereotypes. The court saw troubling statistics that showed Harvard’s admission officers giving Asian applicants lower “personal scores” than other racial groups. In the ruling, Burroughs conceded the university’s admission system was “not perfect” and said it would benefit from implicit-bias training. Selective universities should indeed be alarmed that Asian applicants feel the need to hire admission coaches to appear “less Asian.” To Harvard’s credit, President Larry Bacow said “we will continue to explore how we can strengthen and improve that process moving forward.”

Yet, properly, Burroughs declined to make the sweeping leap that the plaintiffs asked for — invalidating the university’s whole race-conscious approach to admissions. “[T]he court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program . . . solely because it could do better,” she wrote. Colleges can and should do a better job avoiding stereotyping applicants of Asian ancestry. But they can do so without also gutting a system that helps bring black and Latino students to elite institutions like Harvard.


Similar to other selective universities, Harvard continues to use race as a “tip” to pick from among highly qualified applicants. It does not set a quota, it does not assign a numerical score to racial groups, and it does not lower academic standards. The practice allows the university to admit a diverse class — roughly a quarter Asian, just under half white, 14 percent black, and 12 percent Hispanic. Diversity in higher education is certainly good for the classroom experience, and it should also help break down the legacies of discrimination that make affirmative action necessary in the first place. “The rich diversity at Harvard and other colleges and universities and the benefits that flow from that diversity will foster the tolerance, acceptance, and understanding that will ultimately make race-conscious admissions obsolete,” Burroughs wrote.

RICHARD D. KAHLENBERG: There’s a better way to diversify Harvard

That day will come someday, but for now the country is far from a point where it can give up on efforts to redress past discrimination. Since 1978, the Supreme Court decisions upholding affirmative action have pointed to Harvard’s system as a model, one that takes race into account without relying on it as a decisive factor. Tuesday’s decision lays out clearly why the university should be permitted to keep up its efforts to build more equitable classrooms and a more equitable society.