Harvard Doesn't Intentionally Discriminate In Admissions, Appeals Court Rules The panel of judges upheld a federal district court's decision from last year, teeing up a possible case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
NPR logo Appeals Court Rules Harvard Doesn't Discriminate Against Asian American Applicants

Appeals Court Rules Harvard Doesn't Discriminate Against Asian American Applicants

In 2014, an advocacy group first filed a lawsuit, saying that Harvard's race-based considerations for applicants discriminated against Asian American students in process. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images hide caption

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Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In 2014, an advocacy group first filed a lawsuit, saying that Harvard's race-based considerations for applicants discriminated against Asian American students in process.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Updated at 3:28 p.m. ET

A federal appeals court in Boston has ruled Harvard doesn't intentionally discriminate against Asian American applicants in its admissions process.

The panel of judges upheld a federal district court's decision from last year, teeing up a possible case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch, who wrote Thursday's decision, agreed with the lower court that "the statistical evidence did not show that Harvard intentionally discriminated against Asian Americans."

Students for Fair Admissions, an advocacy group, first filed its lawsuit in 2014, saying that Harvard's race-based considerations for applicants discriminated against Asian American students in process.

"Today's decision once again finds that Harvard's admissions policies are consistent with Supreme Court precedent, and lawfully and appropriately pursue Harvard's efforts to create a diverse campus that promotes learning and encourages mutual respect and understanding in our community," a spokeswoman for Harvard told NPR."As we have said time and time again, now is not the time to turn back the clock on diversity and opportunity."

Proponents of ending race-based considerations at U.S. universities were unfazed by Thursday's decision and plan to bring the case to the Supreme Court, according to Edward Blum, the conservative strategist behind SFFA.

Blum said in a statement to NPR member station GBH that he plans to ask the Supreme Court to end the consideration of race in admissions at Harvard and all other universities.

The question of how much race should be a factor in college applicants is a hotly contested one. President Trump's administration has challenged colleges on using race in admissions policies, claiming such practices violate federal law. Last month, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Yale University, saying its policies violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yale has said the lawsuit is "baseless."

Wen Fa, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the Harvard case, said Asian Americans are harmed by the school's admissions rules.

"The Supreme Court's intervention is needed so that universities comport with" federal law, Fa said.

Stella Flores, an associate professor of higher education at New York University, said she hopes the court will rely on decades of research and data that show the benefits of such policies. Race is but one factor within the broad and "holistic admissions policy" at Harvard and other schools, she said.

Flores and Fa say the new conservative majority of the Supreme Court makes predicting whether the justices will take up the case difficult.

The court has previously decided on similar questions. It upheld race-based admissions policies in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, as well as the 2013 and 2016 Fisher v. Univ. of Texas at Austin decisions.

In Grutter, the justices were asked to determine whether the University of Michigan Law School's use of racial preferences in student admissions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the 5-4 Grutter opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said race-based admissions policies should be for a limited time only, Fa said.

That phrasing may be enough for the current court to take up the case, he said.