Harvard Critics Ask Supreme Court to Ban Race in Admissions

Opponents of Harvard College’s affirmative action policies asked the Supreme Court to bar colleges from using race as an admissions factor, setting up what could be a defining showdown for higher education and the court’s conservative majority.

The appeal by Students for Fair Admissions asks the court to overturn the 2003 ruling that let universities keep using race-conscious admissions to diversify their student bodies. A federal appeals court rejected the group’s lawsuit, which contends Harvard is violating federal civil rights laws by intentionally discriminating against Asian-Americans in undergraduate admissions.

The case arrives at a high court likely to be far more skeptical of race-based admissions than it was in 2003. Chief Justice John Roberts has repeatedly criticized what he sees as special protections for racial minorities, writing in a 2006 redistricting case, “It is a sordid business, this divvying up by race.”

The 2003 decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, upheld a University of Michigan Law School policy that considered race as part of a holistic look at a student’s application. The Grutter ruling came a quarter century after the court backed university affirmative action for the first time in the Bakke ruling, which upheld an earlier Harvard admissions policy.

The new appeal called the Grutter decision “grievously wrong” and said the decision had reinforced policies that discriminate against other historically oppressed minorities.

“Harvard is where this court’s approval of race-based admissions began, and it is a fitting place for that approval to end,” argued Students for Fair Admissions, a group run by longtime racial-preference foe Edward Blum.

In a statement, Harvard said it “remains deeply committed” to creating a diverse campus community.

“As earlier court decisions have confirmed, our admissions policies are consistent with Supreme Court precedent,” Harvard said. “We will continue to vigorously defend the right of Harvard College, and every other college and university in the nation, to seek the educational benefits that come from bringing together a diverse group of students.”

Should the Supreme Court agree to hear the case, the justices would probably hear arguments and rule during the nine-month term that starts in October.

The use of race as an admission factor is widespread among selective universities, though several states, including California, bar the practice at public colleges. Students for Fair Admissions is also suing to challenge admissions policies at the University of North Carolina and the University of Texas.

Yale Suit

Students for Fair Admissions also said Thursday it is suing to end the use of race in admissions at Yale University. The suit alleges that Yale removed most Asian applicants from its list of racially-favored groups, which include applicants who identify, at least in part, as Black, Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Islander. The suit was filed in federal court in New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale was sued in October by then-President Donald Trump’s Justice Department, which claimed the Ivy League college was violating federal civil rights law by using an applicant’s racial and ethnic information as “the determinative factor” in hundreds of admissions decisions each year. President Joe Biden’s administration dropped the suit in February.

Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said the lawsuit “simply resurrects the misleading statistics, factual errors, and legal misstatements that the Trump administration included in its suit.”

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Harvard policy on a 2-0 vote. The appeals court said that for each class of 1,600 freshman, the school receives about 35,000 applications and can’t admit all who would succeed academically.

“Harvard has determined that academic excellence alone is not sufficient for admission,” the panel said, but seeks applicants who are “compelling candidates on many dimensions.”

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