Harvard cleared of illegally discriminating against Asian-American applicants to boost racial diversity

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A federal judge has cleared Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants in a ruling seen as a major victory for supporters of affirmative action in college admissions across the United States.

Key points:

  • If Harvard judged applicants on academic results alone, 43 per cent of students would be Asian-American
  • Asian-Americans currently account for 19pc of students, and the university acknowledges it considers race to boost diversity
  • Some experts predict the matter will go to the US Supreme Court

In a closely watched lawsuit that had raised fears about the future of affirmative action, a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) accused the Ivy League college of deliberately — and illegally — holding down the number of Asian-Americans accepted to preserve a certain racial balance on campus.

US District Judge Allison D Burroughs, however, ruled that while Harvard’s admissions process was “not perfect” it passed constitutional muster.

She said there was “no evidence of any racial animus whatsoever” and no evidence any admission decision was “negatively affected by Asian-American identity”.

“Race-conscious admissions will always penalise to some extent the groups that are not being advantaged by the process,” Judge Burroughs wrote, “but this is justified by the compelling interest in diversity and all the benefits that flow from a diverse college population.”

Her ruling, which came after a three-week trial a year ago, is likely to provide temporary relief to other universities which consider race a way to ensure campus diversity.

But it also sets the stage for a prolonged battle that some experts predict will go all the way to the US Supreme Court.

A man talks to reporters in front of protesters holding placards.

PHOTO: Edward Blum brought the case against Harvard on behalf of the Students for Fair Admissions. (Reuters: Brian Snyder)

Harvard president Lawrence S Bacow welcomed the ruling, saying the consideration of race and many other factors “helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student”.

“Today we reaffirm the importance of diversity — and everything it represents to the world,” he said.

SFFA said it would appeal.

“Students for Fair Admissions is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies,” Edward Blum, the group’s president, 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.”

Judge sides with Harvard on alleged wrongdoing

A woman with an umbrella stands next to a man with a camera phone in front of the Harvard library.

PHOTO: The judge ruled that while Harvard’s admissions process was “not perfect” it was legal. (AP: Steven Senne)

In the case at Harvard, the plaintiffs argued Asian-Americans were held to a higher standard in admissions, amounting to an “Asian penalty”, while the university gave preference to black and Hispanic students with poorer grades.

A 2013 internal report at Harvard found that if the school weighed applicants on academics alone, 43 per cent of the admitted class would be Asian-American, while in reality it was 19 per cent.

Harvard said the report was only meant to be “exploratory” and was based on incomplete data.

Much of the lawsuit centred on a subjective “personal rating” Harvard assigns to applicants. The suit argued Asian-Americans consistently receive lower personal ratings because of racial bias, leading many to be rejected.

The plaintiffs built their case around a statistical analysis of six years of Harvard admissions data. It found Asian-Americans had the lowest personal ratings and the lowest admission rates, while black and Hispanic students fared far better in both areas.

Harvard countered with its own analysis finding no evidence of bias. During the trial, the dean of admissions offered possible reasons to explain the low personal rating for Asian-Americans, saying they may come with weaker letters of recommendation.

The judge sided with Harvard on every count of wrongdoing alleged in the lawsuit.

She said differences in personal ratings were “relatively minor” and could be explained by a variety of factors.

She said Harvard proved its use of race was limited and that abandoning it would lead to a sharp decline in diversity.

But she also said the admissions process could be improved by providing “implicit bias” training to admissions officers and by maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race.

Like many elite colleges, Harvard acknowledges it considers race in admissions as a way to boost diversity but says it is only one of many factors in deciding which applicants to admit.

Some US states ban consideration of race in admissions.

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