Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard University

Background

​​​Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard is a federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts challenging Harvard University's “holistic” admissions process and its consideration of race and ethnicity when reviewing applications for undergraduate admission. Following lengthy discovery and pre-trial motions, and a forty-page opinion denying cross-motions for summary judgement, a non-jury trial commenced before Judge Allison Burroughs in October 2018. The parties completed post-trial submissions to the court in early 2019. 

Although the case only concerns Harvard, it has been closely watched, since Harvard’s policies and practices may have features similar to those of other institutions with competitive admissions. Furthermore, United States Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, writing the principal opinion in the 1978 landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, cited the “Harvard College program” as an exemplar of permissible race-conscious admissions. 

“This kind of program treats each applicant as an individual in the admissions process,” Powell wrote. “The applicant who loses out on the last available seat to another candidate receiving a ‘plus’ on the basis of ethnic background will not have been foreclosed from all consideration for that seat simply because he was not the right color or had the wrong surname.”

Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA) alleged in its complaint, filed in 2014, that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American students in its admissions processes. Harvard denies the claim, and went to trial to defend its admissions practices, which Harvard believes to be consistent with federal law informed by a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to Bakke.  

Edward Blum, SFFA’s president, is the architect and driving force behind this lawsuit, and other cases challenging race-conscious admissions practices at colleges and universities, including the unsuccessful attempt in Fisher v. University of Texas to eliminate the use of race as one of many factors in admissions. Blum created SFFA, an organization that purports to work on behalf of Asian-Americans.​​

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