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First Circuit Upholds Harvard's Affirmative Action in Admissions

"John Harvard monument (c. 1884) by Daniel Chester French (Cambridge, Massachusetts)."
By Laura Temme, Esq. on November 18, 2020

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has sided with Harvard College in a recent decision on affirmative action in college admissions. The lawsuit, filed by Students For Fair Admissions in 2014, alleged that Harvard's "race-conscious" admissions process discriminates against Asian students.

In addition to traditional recruiting and application processes, Harvard employs a system of "tips" for applicants. These tips are extra factors that can help "tip" an applicant into that year's admitted class. Admissions officers and alumni interviewers are given a non-exhaustive list of tip factors in their handbooks. Among other things, the list includes unusual intellectual ability, athletic abilities, legacy status, creative ability, and race. Students For Fair Admissions claims that these "tips" favor white students over Asian students.

Harvard Wins At District Court

Last year, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs sided with Harvard, saying that although the school's approach to admissions was "not perfect," it was not unconstitutional. Judge Burroughs concluded that, based on previous Supreme Court cases, Harvard's use of race must be narrowly tailored to a compelling interest - also known as the "strict scrutiny" standard. Because Harvard did not use a quota or "racial balancing" tactics, its admission policies passed this test.

First Circuit Finds Race Is One of Many Factors

The case was heard by a three-judge appeals panel in October. However, the decision was made by only two due to the death of Judge Juan Torruella. The remaining two judges largely upheld Judge Burroughs' decision, finding that Harvard's "limited use of race" in admissions survived the strict scrutiny test.

Harvard proved it had specific, measurable goals it seeks to achieve by considering race, the court wrote, and "tries to create opportunities for interactions between students from different backgrounds and with different experiences." Plus, they concluded, Harvard uses a holistic admissions process - evaluating applicants based on everything in their records.

"Harvard's use of race in admissions is contextual," the judges wrote, "and it does not consider race exclusively."

Students for Fair Admissions is expected to appeal to the Supreme Court. If they do, the case will join several other ongoing affirmative action suits, including one filed by the Justice Department against Yale.

Related Resources:

Lawsuit Challenges California Boardroom Diversity Law (FindLaw's Law & Daily Life)

Sophomore's Post-It About "Rapist In Our School" Not Bullying (FindLaw's First Circuit)

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