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Harvard is cleared of racial bias in admissions after appeals court rules in university’s favor

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A US appeals court has upheld Harvard University’s use of race in undergraduate admissions, ruling against affirmative action opponents who said the Ivy League school’s policy discriminates against Asian Americans.

The 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on Thursday rejected claims by the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, which drew support from the Trump administration. 

SFFA said Harvard engaged in impermissible ‘racial balancing’ to make it easier for blacks and Hispanics to win admission, and did not narrowly tailor its use of race. 

They also claimed admissions officers use a subjective ‘personal rating’ to discriminate against Asian Americans applicants.

A US appeals court on Thursday upheld Harvard University’s use of race in undergraduate admissions, rejecting claims by the Students for Fair Admissions who said the Ivy League school’s policy discriminated against Asian American applicants

The SFFA drew support from the Trump administration which has also taken actions to eliminate racial considerations from college admissions

It said this violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the school must comply with in order to receive federal funding. 

US Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch, however, said Harvard’s use of race was not ‘impermissibly extensive’ and was instead ‘meaningful,’ because it prevented diversity from plummeting.

‘Harvard’s race-conscious admissions program ensures that Harvard can retain the benefits of diversity it has already achieved,’ she said. 

The panel of judges also found that although the personal rating may be correlated with race, the link is more likely to be caused by outside factors including students’ personal essays or letters of recommendation. 

Blum, the SFFA’s president, on Thursday said he was disappointed in the decision, adding that ‘our hope is not lost’ as he vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court.

‘This lawsuit is now on track to go up to the US 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.

Both sides have been preparing for a possible review by the country’s highest court, where legal experts believe the 6-3 conservative majority could use the case to end more than 40 years of allowing race as a factor in higher education admissions. 

In multiple decisions spanning decades, the Supreme Court has ruled that colleges can consider race as a limited factor in order to promote campus diversity.  

Edward Blum, the president of the SFFA (pictured during a protest in 2018), on Thursday said he was disappointed in the decision but vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court

Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said Thursday’s decision reflected efforts to ‘create a diverse campus that promotes learning and encourages mutual respect and understanding. … Now is not the time to turn back the clock on diversity and opportunity.’

The 2-0 decision upheld an October 2019 ruling by US District Judge Allison Burroughs in Boston. A third judge on the appeals court panel, Juan Torruella, died last month.

Burroughs had concluded that Harvard’s admissions program was ‘not perfect’ but that it the school had no ‘workable and available race-neutral alternatives.’

Judge Lynch said the nature of Harvard’s admissions process, including that applicants win approval from a 40-person committee before being offered admission, ‘offset any risk of bias.’ 

Filed in 2014, the lawsuit has revived a national debate about race’s role in college admissions. 

Many elite colleges consider applicants’ race and give an edge to some underrepresented students to promote diversity on campus. 

The Trump administration has opposed the practice and backed the lawsuit against Harvard. In October, the Justice Department filed a similar suit accusing Yale University of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants.

Blum, a legal strategist, has spent years working to rid racial considerations from college admissions. 

Before the Harvard case, he orchestrated an unsuccessful fight challenging the use of race at the University of Texas where a student claimed she was rejected by because she was white.

Students and pedestrians walk through the Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Several Asian American groups filed legal briefs supporting Harvard, while some others filed briefs backing the suit and alleging discrimination in Ivy League admissions. 

Using six years of admissions data, SFFA found that Asian American applicants were given the highest scores in an academic category but received the lowest scores on the personal rating.

They also found that Harvard accepted Asian Americans at lower rates while giving preference to Black and Hispanic students with lower grades.  

Harvard in response has denied any discrimination and said in close calls between students, some underrepresented students may get a ‘tip’ in their favor, but their race is never counted against them.   

SFFA is also pursuing a similar case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill challenging its consideration of race as a factor in its admissions process. A non-jury trail in that case began on Monday.

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