Harvard Accused Of 'Racial Balancing': Lawsuit Says Asian-Americans Treated Unfairly Harvard says it doesn't discriminate — and it notes that the suit is backed by the same activist who challenged the University of Texas' affirmative action policy.
NPR logo Harvard Accused Of 'Racial Balancing': Lawsuit Says Asian-Americans Treated Unfairly

Harvard Accused Of 'Racial Balancing': Lawsuit Says Asian-Americans Treated Unfairly

A lawsuit accuses Harvard of treating Asian-Americans unfairly in its admissions process. Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters hide caption

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Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

A lawsuit accuses Harvard of treating Asian-Americans unfairly in its admissions process.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

In an intense legal battle over the role of race in Harvard University's admissions policies, a group that is suing the school says Harvard lowers the rankings of Asian-American applicants in a way that is unconstitutional.

Harvard says that its admissions process is legal — and it notes that the plaintiff group, the Students for Fair Admissions, is backed by the same activist who previously challenged the University of Texas' affirmative action policy.

The SFFA says Harvard uses "racial balancing" as part of its formula for admitting students and that the practice is illegal. In response, Harvard says the group is misinterpreting data that the highly competitive school shared about how it chooses students.

Citing a 2013 analysis by Harvard's Office of Institutional Research, the SFFA said in a federal court filing on Friday that if academics were the only criterion, Asian-American students would have made up more than 43 percent of students who were admitted, rather than the actual 18.7 percent.

Even if other criteria — such as legacy students, athletic recruiting and extracurricular and personal attributes — are included, the plaintiffs say, the number of Asian-Americans at Harvard would still have risen to more than 26 percent.

Saying that the admission rate for whites outpaced that of Asian-Americans over a 10-year period — despite outperforming them in only the "personal" ratings — the plaintiffs allege that "being Asian American actually decreases the chances of admissions."

In a statement, Harvard said on Friday that a full analysis of the data shows the school "does not discriminate against applicants from any group, including Asian-Americans, whose rate of admission has grown 29 percent over the last decade."

Harvard says the OIR analysis was preliminary and that it will defend its approach to achieving a diverse school body and campus community.

Harvard told the court in Boston that the plaintiffs' analysis paints "a dangerously inaccurate picture of Harvard College's whole-person admissions process by omitting critical data and information factors, such as personal essays and teacher recommendations."

The competing accusations are the latest salvos in more than 400 legal filings over the case, which pits Harvard against plaintiffs backed by Edward Blum, a former investment broker who has for decades challenged how institutions and governments incorporate race into their decision-making processes.

"We allege that Harvard has a hard, fast quota limiting the number of Asians it will admit," Blum told NPR in 2014, when he first sued the school. "In addition to that, Harvard has a racial balancing policy that balances the percentages of African-Americans, Hispanics, whites and Asians."

On Friday, the two sides put out a flurry of motions, memoranda and declarations, seeking summary judgments and showing how they intend to argue the case — which goes to trial in mid-October.

Citing "the undisputed evidence," the SFFA said that Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian-Americans and "engages in racial balancing."

It also said, "Harvard neither gave serious, good faith consideration to nor took advantage of workable race-neutral alternatives."

The university's filings stated, "Harvard's admissions process reviews each applicant as a whole person, using race flexibly and as only one factor among many."

The school also said Blum's group lacks the standing to pursue its case, saying, "SFFA is not a true membership organization that can sue on behalf of its members; it is a litigation vehicle designed to further the ideological objectives" of its founder.

To find plaintiffs for his case against Harvard (and a separate suit against the University of North Carolina), Blum's organization put up the HarvardNotFair website, which asked, "Were You Denied Admission to Harvard? It may be because you're the wrong race."

Spurred by the SFFA case, Harvard has also drawn the scrutiny of the U.S. Justice Department, which opened a probe into the role of race in its admissions policies last November. The federal agency said it wanted to ensure the school was complying with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In doing so, the Trump administration showed it was willing to explore a potential case over a complaint that the Obama administration had dismissed.

At least two of Blum's earlier suits have reached the Supreme Court, including the Texas admissions case (which was referred back to lower courts) and a challenge to part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (which successfully argued that the law's coverage formula was outdated).