On October 1, a federal trial court in Massachusetts upheld Harvard University’s use of race in its admissions process against a challenge that the policy discriminates against Asian-American students on the basis of race. The decision followed a long line of U.S. Supreme Court cases holding that colleges and universities may use race as a “plus factor” among many in admissions decisions. The composition of the Supreme Court has changed since those decisions issued, and an appeal to the Court is expected. Nonetheless, the decision offers important takeaways for college, university, and K-12 leaders who wish to foster diversity in student admissions and school assignments.
The Harvard lawsuit was filed by a nonprofit group, Students for Fair Admissions, on behalf of Asian-American students who were denied admission to Harvard. The group is led in part by Abigail Fisher, the white student whose lawsuit against the University of Texas for racial discrimination the Supreme Court rejected by one vote in 2016. Fisher’s case was an unexpected victory for proponents of racial diversity in schools, as the “swing vote” in the case, Anthony Kennedy, had never before voted to uphold an affirmative action plan. Many believed at the time that the Court would overturn its longstanding precedent that schools could use race as one factor among many, such as grades, test scores, extracurricular involvement, and legacy status, in making admissions decisions.
In the Harvard lawsuit, the plaintiffs raise many familiar arguments against the use of race for any reason in admissions and other school placement decisions. For example, they claim that Harvard’s system is really impermissible racial balancing and that the practice unfairly burdens other racial groups. But the case includes a unique twist, in that the alleged victims of Harvard’s practices are themselves racial minorities. Data suggests that Asian-American students are admitted at a lower proportionate rate when colleges consider race as a factor.
Takeaways for School Leaders
Based on the trial court judge’s decision, college, university, and K-12 school leaders should keep the following key points in mind:
Because the Supreme Court, which now has a clear conservative majority, will likely hear the expected appeal of this decision, school leaders will need to continue to monitor this case.