Federal Appeals Court Upholds Ruling in Harvard Affirmative Action Case, Potentially Setting Up Supreme Court Challenge

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a ruling that Harvard University’s admissions process does not violate civil rights law by including race as a factor of consideration, rejecting claims that the school discriminated against Asian-American applicants.

The ruling from the two-judge panel from the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Massachusetts said a previous ruling from a lower district court was correct in stating that Harvard’s limited use of race in its admissions process in order to achieve diversity “is consistent with the requirements of Supreme Court precedent,” according to the court filing.

Harvard in a statement applauded the ruling, saying it shows the school’s admission policies “lawfully and appropriately pursue Harvard’s efforts to create a diverse campus that promotes learning and encourages mutual respect and understanding in our community.”

The high-profile case, brought forward by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) and its president Edward Blum, could now head to the Supreme Court in a landmark affirmative action challenge. 

“This lawsuit is now on track to go up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where we will ask the justices to end these unfair and unconstitutional race-based admissions policies at Harvard and all colleges and universities,” Blum said in a statement.

Blum and SFFA have a history of challenging laws involving race and ethnicity and alleged Harvard’s admissions practices discriminated against Asian-Americans.

The lawsuit against Harvard was filed in 2014 and involved several legal battles over how much Harvard should disclose about its admissions practices. Even though Harvard is a private university, it receives millions of dollars in federal grants, requiring it to abide by federal civil rights laws that ban discrimination based on race and other factors.

As part of a three-week trial in fall 2018, evidence in the form of internal admissions data was made public, offering new details about the school’s highly selective selection process. Harvard disputed SFFA’s claims, saying it uses a "whole person review" in its admissions process, considering many factors regarding each applicant, including race.

The ruling from the appeals court Thursday agreed with the district court finding that said Harvard considered race among other factors in seeking to achieve student diversity "as part of a holistic review process.”

Harvard said that should the lawsuit against it succeed, it would diminish students' opportunities to live and learn in a diverse campus environment. 

NASFAA, along with dozens of other higher education organizations and advocacy groups, in 2018 submitted an amicus brief opposing the lawsuit's challenge to Harvard’s admissions process.

American Council on Education (ACE) President Ted Mitchell called the decision Thursday a “clear win” for Harvard and other universities.

“We applaud in the strongest terms this ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals and are confident that if and when this case goes to the Supreme Court, the justices will continue to uphold the vital principle that student body diversity is a compelling governmental interest,” he said in a statement. “In the meantime, colleges and universities continue to have the autonomy to define the intangible characteristics like diversity that are central to each institution's identity and educational mission.”

In addition to the Harvard case, SFAA is also suing to have racial considerations removed from the admissions process at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in a separate case at the University of Texas at Austin.


Publication Date: 11/13/2020

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