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Supreme Court Affirmative Action Case Challenges College Admissions Policies

January 26, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Supreme Court Affirmative Action Case Challenges College Admissions Policies
The John Harvard statue is pictured in the yard outside of University Hall. (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear an affirmative action case that threatens to invalidate college admissions policies intended to level the playing field for disadvantaged minorities.

A group of Asian students say they were passed over by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina in favor of Black and Hispanic students who were less qualified.

The universities deny they allow race to be a guiding principle in their admissions decisions. Harvard officials describe race as a “plus factor” that weighs in favor of minority applicants if they already have demonstrated their qualifications as good students.

The universities also say the policy ensures the benefits on their campuses of a diverse student body.

The group that filed the original lawsuit against Harvard in 2014 calls itself Students for Fair Admissions.

Their lawsuit cites Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Asian American students say Harvard is penalizing them in violation of Title VI through its policy that seeks racial balancing by overemphasizing race as an admissions factor.

Their spokesman, Ed Blum, cited Pew Research Center and Gallup polls showing most Americans do not believe race or ethnicity should influence college admissions.

“In a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation like ours, the college admissions bar cannot be raised for some races and ethnic groups but lowered for others,” Blum said. “Our nation cannot remedy past discrimination and racial preferences with new discrimination and different racial preferences.”

Harvard also put out a statement, calling the lawsuit “a threat to educational opportunity for millions of young people.”

It added, “If the lawsuit against Harvard succeeds, it would diminish students’ opportunities to live and learn in a diverse campus environment, denying them the kind of experiences that are central to Harvard’s educational mission and critical for success in our diverse society.”

So far, previous lawsuits and complaints that challenged college affirmative action programs have largely failed.

In 2008, a group of students sued the University of Texas at Austin over its minority-friendly admissions policy. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the university in a 2016 ruling.

The university argued that its race-conscious admissions policy was legal because it used ethnicity to serve a compelling governmental interest, namely the educational benefits of a diverse learning environment.

In a separate challenge, a group of students filed a complaint in 2015 over Harvard’s admissions policy with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice. The Department of Education dismissed the complaint months later.

The Justice Department has so far reached no conclusion on the complaint.

Now, with conservatives holding a six to three majority on the Supreme Court, Students for Fair Admissions appears to stand a better chance for success.

Several Asian American advocacy groups have filed amicus, or friend-of-the-court, briefs with the Supreme Court that say their children face discrimination in college admissions.

Part of the evidence being presented to the Supreme Court is taken from attorney investigations after the original lawsuit was filed in 2014.

The plaintiffs say it showed that the percentage of Asians admitted to Harvard remained suspiciously similar each year despite increasing numbers of Asian American applicants.

Records from interviews by admissions officers revealed that Asian American applicants were rated lower than other groups on personality, likability, courage and kindness. They scored highest on academic skills.

The records also showed African Americans were rated highest for personal qualities but lowest on academics, the plaintiffs say.

The case is Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, case number 20-1199, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com

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