Harvard Discrimination Lawsuit Wins Justice Department Support

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. government backed a lawsuit challenging Harvard University’s admissions process as biased against Asian-Americans, as the case attacking affirmative action in higher education moves closer to a trial.

The Justice Department contends Harvard has violated the law by using a subjective personal rating system and can’t defend its use of race as a component in admissions decisions to promote diversity.

“Harvard acknowledges that it voluntarily uses race as a factor in deciding whether to offer certain young adults admission to, and the substantial educational benefits of, its elite institution,” the Justice Department said in a court brief filed Thursday. “But Harvard has failed to carry its demanding burden to show that its use of race does not inflict unlawful racial discrimination on Asian Americans.”

Students for Fair Admissions Inc. sued the Ivy League school in 2014, claiming statistical evidence from Harvard’s own researchers shows bias in admissions against Asian Americans, including by automatically assigning a lower rating to such applicants.

The group -- led by a conservative legal strategist who’s been involved in other litigation challenging voting rights laws and affirmative action policies -- says it represents students rejected from Harvard and has asked a judge to decide the case in its favor before a trial based on court filings.

Harvard said Thursday it’s disappointed the Justice Department has chosen to recycle “the same misleading and hollow arguments that prove nothing more than the emptiness of the case." The Ivy League school has said it uses a "holistic" approach in admissions that complies with U.S Supreme Court rulings which allow universities to consider an applicant’s race among many factors.

Harvard also said Thursday that the Trump administration has engaged in "a highly irregular investigation," after having tried to repeal Obama-era guidelines on the consideration of race in admissions.

If a federal judge in Boston doesn’t resolve the case soon, she’s set to preside over a non-jury trial starting Oct. 15. The case could eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and serve as a means to rewrite federal law on affirmative action in university admissions. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sided with Harvard Thursday in advocating for racial diversity as part of determining who gets in.

The Justice Department claims Harvard has no meaningful criteria for considering race, just a “vague personal rating that harms Asian-American applicants” by considering factors such as “likability” and “human qualities.”

“Harvard has been using race to make admissions decisions for more than 45 years -- but substantial record evidence demonstrates that, even now, it has never engaged in ‘serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives,’” the U.S. said in its filing.

“No American should be denied admission to school because of their race,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “Harvard has a responsibility to conduct its admissions policy without racial discrimination by using meaningful admissions criteria that meet lawful requirements.”

At least 25 Harvard-related organizations, including those representing Native American, Latino, Black, Chinese and Japanese alumni and students, filed court papers Thursday arguing the elimination of race in Harvard’s application process will lead to further discrimination against minorities.

Additionally, 16 economists and statisticians -- including a Nobel Laureate -- filed a brief arguing the analysis used by plaintiffs was "not based on sound statistical principles or practices." The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law said the case was based on the "unjustified presumption that test scores alone entitle a student admission to Harvard." It called the Justice Department’s actions "a full assault on the efforts to promote diversity."

For the academic year now getting started, Harvard admitted 4.6 percent of applicants to its class of 2022. Women represented 50.1 percent of those accepted; African-Americans 15.5 percent; Latinos 12.2 percent; and Native Americans 2 percent, according to the Harvard Crimson. Asian-Americans made up a record 22.7 percent of the class.

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