Federal Court Upholds Harvard's Race-Conscious Admissions Process
Published: October 02, 2019

​​A federal judge Tuesday r​​eleased a long-anticipated decision in the Harvard University admissions case, ruling the institution does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants and reaffirming the importance of race-conscious admissions in helping construct diverse campuses.

As ACE President Ted Mitchell said in a statement, the ruling by Judge Allison Burroughs of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts “unambiguously respects more than four decades of U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Finding that 'Harvard's interest in student body diversity is substantial and compelling,' the court emphasized that the university has followed the high court's standard that race and ethnicity can be considered within a narrowly tailored framework as one factor in a holistic admissions review."

Mitchell noted that the ruling was “especially gratifying because it occurs against a backdrop of continuing attacks on what remains the settled law of the land in this area."

An amicus brief in the Harvard case filed by ACE and 36 other higher education groups opposing the challenge to the “Harvard model" of holistic admissions review noted that the lawsuit represented a first step in a backdoor attempt to achieve what was denied just over three years ago when the high court issued its latest ruling in the area of race-conscious admissions in the Fisher II case involving the University of Texas at Austin. That 2016 Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the constitutionality of considering race as one factor in a holistic admissions review and underscored the autonomy U.S. colleges and universities have to define the intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to each institution's identity and educational mission.

News reports by Inside Higher Ed and other publications (see also coverage by outlets such as The Associated Press, Politico, and The New York Times) noted that while the judge did not consider the Harvard admissions process perfect, she said that "the court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better."

Judge Burroughs took note of the evidence at trial regarding Harvard's mission and its “interest in diversity and the wide-ranging benefits of diversity." She observed, “The students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs and talents. They will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences."

Echoing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, Judge Burroughs imagined a day when “[t]he rich diversity at Harvard and other colleges and universities and the benefits that flow from that diversity will foster the tolerance, acceptance and understanding that will ultimately make race conscious admissions obsolete." But, the judge wrote, "For purposes of this case, at least for now, ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions."

Judge Burroughs said that properly implemented race conscious admissions programs “have an important place in society and help ensure that colleges and universities can offer a diverse atmosphere that fosters learning, improves scholarship, and encourages mutual respect and understanding." As for the evidence presented during the trial, Judge Burroughs ruled that it “satisfies the dictates of strict scrutiny." Quoting the Grutter opinion, she found that Harvard's admissions program “bears the hallmarks of a narrowly tailored plan" in that “race [is] used in a flexible, nonmechanical way" and considered “as a 'plus' factor in the context of individualized consideration of each and every applicant."

Speaking to the specific claim in the lawsuit, which was filed five years ago, that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants, Judge Burroughs said, “The testimony of the admissions officers that there was no discrimination against Asian American applicants with respect to the admissions process as a whole and the personal ratings in particular was consistent, unambiguous, and convincing."

The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, and may ultimately reach the Supreme Court, putting the issue of race-conscious admissions back in front of the justice, although this time before a court that is considered more conservative with the addition of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh during the Trump administration.

Mitchell noted in his statement that, “We applaud this ruling and are confident that the nation's courts, including its highest court, will continue to uphold the vital principle that colleges and universities that choose to do so can consider race as one factor in reviewing applicants to achieve the goal of a talented, diverse incoming class."

Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in a letter to his community that, “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. 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."

For more on the Harvard case and ACE statements and amicus briefs on this and past race-conscious admissions cases, click here.