Harvard Hints It Will Use Personal Essays To Circumvent Court Ruling

(Glen Cooper/Getty Images)
June 29, 2023

Harvard University hinted that it will turn to application essays to preserve its system of racial preferences in admissions, after the Supreme Court struck down the school’s race-based system as unconstitutional.

While the Court rejected affirmative action, Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow noted that it also "ruled that colleges and universities may consider in admissions decisions ‘an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.’"

"We will certainly comply with the Court’s decision," Bacow and other Harvard administrators wrote in a Thursday statement.

Harvard president-elect Claudine Gay released a video statement saying that the school was still "working to understand this decision and its implications for our policies."

"While we don’t have all the answers about what’s next, we do know that we will move forward together," she said.

The essays could provide a loophole for advocates of race-based admissions, some of whom have vowed to fight the ruling. In a speech on Thursday, President Joe Biden said "we can’t let this decision be the last word" on affirmative action, and said he would direct the Department of Education to come up with alternatives to ensure racial diversity on college campuses.

But the move could also violate the Court’s ruling, which held that college admissions essays could not be used directly as a tool to continue race-based admissions.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, said that while nothing prohibits schools from considering essays that discuss the race of the applicant, "universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today."

"A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination," Roberts wrote. "In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race."

Bacow's full statement to the Harvard community can be read below.


Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

Today, the Supreme Court delivered its decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. The Court held that Harvard College’s admissions system does not comply with the principles of the equal protection clause embodied in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The Court also ruled that colleges and universities may consider in admissions decisions "an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." We will certainly comply with the Court’s decision.

We write today to reaffirm the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences. That principle is as true and important today as it was yesterday. So too are the abiding values that have enabled us—and every great educational institution—to pursue the high calling of educating creative thinkers and bold leaders, of deepening human knowledge, and of promoting progress, justice, and human flourishing.

We affirm that:

Because the teaching, learning, research, and creativity that bring progress and change require debate and disagreement, diversity and difference are essential to academic excellence.

To prepare leaders for a complex world, Harvard must admit and educate a student body whose members reflect, and have lived, multiple facets of human experience. No part of what makes us who we are could ever be irrelevant.

Harvard must always be a place of opportunity, a place whose doors remain open to those to whom they had long been closed, a place where many will have the chance to live dreams their parents or grandparents could not have dreamed.

For almost a decade, Harvard has vigorously defended an admissions system that, as two federal courts ruled, fully complied with longstanding precedent. In the weeks and months ahead, drawing on the talent and expertise of our Harvard community, we will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values.

The heart of our extraordinary institution is its people. Harvard will continue to be a vibrant community whose members come from all walks of life, all over the world. To our students, faculty, staff, researchers, and alumni—past, present, and future—who call Harvard your home, please know that you are, and always will be, Harvard. Your remarkable contributions to our community and the world drive Harvard’s distinction. Nothing today has changed that.


Lawrence S. Bacow

President, Harvard University

Alan M. Garber

Provost, Harvard University

Meredith Weenick

Executive Vice President, Harvard University

Claudine Gay

Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

President-elect, Harvard University

Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Dean, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Nancy Coleman

Dean, Division of Continuing Education and University Extension

George Q. Daley

Dean, Harvard Medical School

Srikant Datar

Dean, Harvard Business School

Emma Dench

Dean, Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Francis J. Doyle III

Dean, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Douglas Elmendorf

Dean, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

William V. Giannobile

Dean, Harvard School of Dental Medicine

David N. Hempton

Dean, Harvard Divinity School

Rakesh Khurana

Dean, Harvard College

Bridget Terry Long

Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education

John F. Manning

Dean, Harvard Law School

Sarah M. Whiting

Dean, Graduate School of Design

Michelle A. Williams

Dean, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health