Harvard Admissions-Bias Case Draws Nearer to a Supreme Court Review

(Bloomberg) -- Harvard is fighting a claim that it illegally limits the number of Asian-Americans it accepts. The lawsuit, grinding on since 2014, seeks to stop the oldest and richest college in the U.S. from considering race altogether. It may reach the newly composed Supreme Court, whose conservative justices could tip the balance against affirmative action in college admissions for decades to come.

The suit was filed by Students For Fair Admissions, or SFFA, led by affirmative action opponent Edward Blum, and accuses Harvard of “racial balancing.” Harvard argues that race is just one factor in its calculus, an approach allowed by the high court, and that without it the school couldn’t provide the educational benefit of a diverse student body.

Harvard Admissions-Bias Case Draws Nearer to a Supreme Court Review

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs, hearing the case in Boston without a jury, wrapped up the trial last month. Each side submitted its “findings of fact and conclusions of law” Wednesday -- essentially, their view of the facts and the legal conclusions they believe the judge should reach. Here are highlights.

SFFA’s side

  • Harvard’s admission system “imposes an Asian-American penalty,” a statistical analysis by expert witness Peter Arcidiacono shows.
  • The resulting “stark racial disparity” is at odds with the expert’s statistical analysis, which shows that Asian-Americans are the strongest in Harvard’s applicant pool both academically and by an extracurricular rating.
  • “White applicants are admitted at a higher rate than Asian-Americans in every academic decile,” suggesting that “Asian-Americans are being penalized vis-a-vis whites with similar qualifications.”
  • Harvard gives preference to athletes and to the children of alumni, donors and faculty, disproportionately benefiting “white and wealthy applicants.”

Harvard’s side

  • SFFA failed to show that even a single Asian-American “had been rejected on the basis of his or her race or ethnicity,” and conceded that in some categories Asian-Americans are admitted at higher rates than white applicants with similar attributes.
  • Lacking evidence of “racial animus,” SFFA has relied almost wholly on its own statistical analysis, “entirely rebutted by the analysis of Harvard’s expert, which showed no statistically significant effect of Asian-American ethnicity on admissions.”
  • In 1,591 pages of admissions files, SFFA identified only two handwritten notes describing Asian-American applicants as “quiet,” a term the plaintiff argued revealed bias and stereotypical thinking.
  • SFFA “brought this suit against Harvard, the very institution whose race-conscious admissions practices the Supreme Court has repeatedly identified as a model of legality,” because “its ultimate grievance is with those precedents.”

What’s next

  • Further friend-of-the-court briefs to be filed Jan. 9
  • Responses from each side to the other’s proposed findings due Jan. 23
  • Lawyers can return for further arguments before Burroughs rules
  • Likely appeal, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court

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