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Harvard’s Fate Still Uncertain After Princeton Admissions Case

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 Daphne C. Thompson, Crimson Staff Writer

While the federal government last week concluded that Princeton does not discriminate against Asian and Asian-American applicants in its admissions process, experts caution that Harvard—currently facing similar charges in a separate lawsuit—is still not guaranteed a win.

Last November, the anti-affirmative action group Project on Fair Representation filed a lawsuit alleging that Harvard’s admissions processes set illegal quotas on students of Asian descent and “target percentages” for underrepresented minorities. The lawsuit, which targets the College’s use of race-based affirmative action, is in its discovery period as both parties gather evidence to use in court.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that Princeton’s admissions policies are consistent with prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings, concluding an investigation that began in 2006 and was expanded in 2008. Investigators also concluded that Princeton had not created a quota system to limit Asian-American applicants.

“The OCR is saying that there are a lot of smart kids that aren’t getting in, and Asians are just a part of that group,” said Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. “So right now racial discrimination is not a compelling argument.”

Edward Blum, the man behind the lawsuit against Harvard and another ongoing affirmative action case about the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an email that he was not aware of the Princeton OCR report, but that it “has no bearing on this lawsuit.”

But David Mainiero, the director of college counseling at InGenius Prep, was more confident that the Princeton verdict would set a precedent for Harvard.

“The elite schools that they’re talking about are very careful about their admissions practices,” Mainiero said. “The charge of an explicit form of discrimination probably isn’t well-founded, at least by the letter of the law.”

Muth, however, also warned that Harvard’s fate would depend on the return of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin—the high-profile lawsuit alleging that a white woman was denied admission to the school because of her race—to the Supreme Court. A ruling in favor of Fisher, the other case backed by Blum, has the potential to end affirmative action programs at colleges across the country.

“In the Princeton case, they’re using race as a factor in admissions because it is still legal to do so,” Muth said. “If the Supreme Court rules differently, that would change the dynamics of these kinds of cases.”

Harvard has filed a motion to delay the lawsuit against it until a verdict is reached on the Fisher case.

The lawsuit is one of several recent challenges to Harvard and its use of affirmative action, a policy that administrators maintain is critical for fostering campus diversity but faces mounting scrutiny. For her part, University President Drew G. Faust promised a “vigorous defense” of Harvard’s admissions practices earlier this month, pledging that Harvard would “speak frequently and forcefully about the importance of diversity in the months to come.”

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

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