Judge Rules for Harvard in Anti-Asian Discrimination Challenge

Plaintiffs aim to take case to SCOTUS

Harvard students walk through the campus
Harvard students walk through the campus / Getty Images

A federal judge ruled that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants in a high-profile case that activists want to put before the Supreme Court.

The case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, is widely seen as a referendum on the standards by which elite universities determine admissions, as well as an opportunity for affirmative action policies to return to the Supreme Court.

The plaintiff, SFFA, represents dozens of Asian would-be Harvard students who argued that the university's "holistic" admissions standards massively discounted their academic achievement. In its arguments, the group pointed to a study of more than 160,000 Harvard applicants, arguing that it showed that Asians were systematically discriminated against on the basis of intangible, personality-based factors. Because these factors tend to disproportionately disadvantage Asian students, and are unrelated to measured merit, SFFA charged that they constituted impermissible racial discrimination.

Judge Allison Burroughs of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts sided with the university in a 130-page ruling issued Tuesday. Burroughs wrote that while Harvard's system "is not perfect," it survives the requirements of strict scrutiny as to the question of racial bias.

"[T]he Court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better," Burroughs wrote. "There is always the specter of perfection, but strict scrutiny does not require it and a few identified imperfections, after years of litigating and sifting through applications and metrics, do not alone require a finding that Harvard’s admissions program is not narrowly tailored."

In an open letter, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow celebrated the ruling and reiterated Harvard's support for diversity.

"Harvard College’s admissions process aims to evaluate each individual as a whole person. The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student," Bacow said. "Everyone admitted to Harvard College has something unique to offer our community, and today we reaffirm the importance of diversity—and everything it represents to the world."

The ruling is only a temporary setback for activists. Edward Blum—president of SFFA and an anti-affirmative action activist who played a key role in Fisher v. University of Texas—said in a statement that SFFA will pursue the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

"Students for Fair Admissions is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies," Blum said in a statement. "We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis, and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian-American applicants."

Blum and SFFA are not the only ones interested in investigating discrimination in the Ivy Leagues. The Department of Justice filed a brief supporting SFFA and has initiated its own investigation into racial discrimination at both Harvard and Yale University.

SFFA v. Harvard could give the Supreme Court—which is entirely composed of Ivy League graduates—a chance to revisit race-based affirmative action in higher education. The court ruled 4-3 to uphold U.T. Austin's race-sensitive admissions policy in 2016's Fisher v. Texas. Opponents suspect that with Anthony Kennedy no longer on the bench, and a new conservative majority in power, the tables may turn in favor of race-blind admissions.

The case has not only provoked debate about affirmative action, but has provided the public a close look at how an elite university like Harvard makes its admissions decisions. Two academic papers, authored by an expert witness for SFFA and released Monday, revealed that athletic, legacy, and affirmative action admissions play an outsized role in Harvard's admissions process.

(Arcidiacono et al. 2019)

Using the thousands of records released by Harvard, the authors argued that legacy and athletics admissions disproportionately benefit white students, finding that "removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged." Their results also indicate that without affirmative action policies, substantially more Asian Americans would be admitted to Harvard—a statistical claim likely to be critical to any subsequent litigation.