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Facing Admissions Scrutiny, Harvard Has Much at Stake

News analysis: Harvard faces mounting criticism of its use of race-based affirmative action

Harvard acceptance letters are sealed by members of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid prior to being mailed off.
Harvard acceptance letters are sealed by members of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid prior to being mailed off.
By Jalin P. Cunningham, Crimson Staff Writer

As Harvard moves into the new academic year, it faces mounting scrutiny into an aspect of its admission process that administrators have long held is central to fostering diversity in its student body—race-based affirmative action.

Last academic year alone, Harvard was hit with a string of allegations accusing the College of discriminating based on race because it, like many other colleges and universities, considers race among other factors in its admissions decisions.

Last November, an anti-affirmation group filed a lawsuit against Harvard, alleging that its admissions policies discriminate against Asian-American applicants. This past spring, more than 60 Asian-American groups filed a complaint with the federal Departments of Education and Justice making similar charges, calling for an in-depth investigation into Harvard’s use of race in its admissions processes.

That complaint was dismissed by the Department of Education because of its similarities to the separate and ongoing lawsuit against Harvard.

But outside Harvard, affirmative action is also under fire: The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to re-hear another affirmative case in higher education—Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, which involves a white woman who claims she was unjustly denied admission to the school because of her race. The man behind that case, Edward Blum, is the same person who organized the lawsuit challenging Harvard’s affirmative action policies.

These high-profile challenges to affirmative action threaten what administrators say is one of Harvard’s methods to achieving campus diversity, which the University publicly values; its official admissions website declares that “While Harvard is renowned for its academic excellence, we strongly believe that one of our greatest strengths is the exceptional diversity within the student body.”

University President Drew G. Faust, meanwhile, addressed the Blum lawsuit against Harvard on Wednesday in remarks in Memorial Church, vowing to defend Harvard’s policies against what she described as a challenge to the University’s “fundamental values.”

Experts say the University has a lot at stake in the ongoing litigation, both in the Fisher case and the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard.

“What Harvard stands to the most efficient and direct route to achieving racial diversity,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a professor at Harvard Law School and expert in education law and policy. Other methods universities can use to foster campus diversity, such as ramping up recruiting efforts to high schools with many minority applicants, are much less time- and cost-effective, she said.

“Harvard and all of the other colleges that have legal action pending are going to be subject to the Supreme Court case,” said David A. Hawkins, the executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, of which Harvard is a member.

Lawyers representing Harvard filed a motion this summer to delay the pending lawsuit against Harvard until the Supreme Court reviews the Fisher case, as the two deal “with the same fundamental issues,” according to University spokesperson Jeff Neal.

According to Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, a ruling against race-based affirmative action would cause an “ongoing nightmare” for Harvard, as it would open floodgates for other rejected students seeking compensation.

“The lawyers at Harvard will be busy for a very long time,” he said.

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.

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