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In Landmark Ruling, Supreme Court Backs Race-Conscious Admissions

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 Brandon J. Dixon, Crimson Staff Writer

In a landmark victory for Harvard and affirmative action supporters across the nation, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to race-conscious admissions policies in a 4-3 vote.

University President Drew G. Faust praised the decision for protecting affirmative action, a policy that Harvard has fought to keep in the past and continues to defend in court.

“At Harvard, we strive to foster a diverse campus community that prepares our students to thrive as citizens and as leaders in an increasingly connected world and global economy,” Faust wrote in a statement. “We are pleased that today’s Supreme Court’s ruling in Fisher v. the University of Texas has upheld this integral value.”

In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Abigail N. Fisher—a white woman who was denied admission to the school—filed a suit alleging that the school’s consideration of race in its admissions process disadvantaged her and other white applicants.

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 Shunella Grace Lumas

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that the race-conscious admissions program in use at the time of Fisher’s application is “lawful under the Equal Protection Clause.” The ruling will allow universities to continue to consider race in the admissions process.

“Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy—joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia M. Sotomayor—in the majority opinion.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ’76 and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. offered a lengthy dissenting opinion, calling race-conscious admissions policies a “faddish theory” and arguing that “every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provisions of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all.” Justice Elena Kagan, former dean of the Law School who interacted with the case during her time as solicitor general, recused herself.

Harvard had a significant stake in the outcome of Fisher. Though the case explicitly refers to public institutions, Harvard receives research funding from the federal government, which could beholden it to any court ruling. In September 2015, Faust pledged a “vigorous defense” of Harvard’s affirmative action policies.

Harvard directly involved itself in the Fisher case last November when it filed a 27-page amicus curiae brief reiterating its belief that a diverse student population is “a compelling interest that justifies race-conscious admissions in higher education.” Dean of Harvard Law School Martha L. Minow, along with Yale Law School Dean Robert C. Post ’69, filed a separate amicus brief in the case, arguing that a ruling in favor of Fisher would have “devastating” educational consequences.

Thursday’s ruling is a “decisive victory” for Harvard, Law professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 said, adding that the decision is “favorable to what Harvard has tried to do over the years to overcome racial stereotypes.”

“Our affirmative action program and others like it will of course continue to be the targets of litigation, some of it well intended, but those creating and administering such programs will now be able to point to what amounts to a clear blueprint for their design and defense,” Tribe wrote in an email.

The ruling on Fisher could impact pending litigation against Harvard that targets its affirmative action policies. The case against Harvard, brought forth in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions—an anti-affirmative action group of which Fisher herself is a board member—alleges that Harvard’s admission process discriminates against Asian American applicants to maintain racial “quotas.”

After the Supreme Court agreed to rehear the Fisher case last year, Harvard requested the lawsuit be delayed, arguing that Fisher “presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to clarify the law governing how public universities may consider race in the admissions process.”

Over the course of the past few months, the lawsuit has moved along slowly as both sides disputed what data should be readily available to legal counsel in the absence of a Supreme Court decision.

In light of the Fisher ruling, though, Tribe said that the allegations made against Harvard’s admissions policies seem “overwhelmingly likely to fail.”

Edward Blum, the man behind the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit and the original Fisher v. Texas case, could not be reached for comment.

But Eric F. Citron ’03, a partner at Goldstein & Russell, a firm that practices principally before the Supreme Court, noted in SCOTUS Blog that the ruling represents a “compromise” between upholding affirmative action policies and charging universities with refining them. Citron cautioned universities against taking the ruling as a confirmation of affirmative action policies, but rather acknowledging they are only justifiable “by a robust record showing that other means of addressing diversity concerns have failed.”

“Public and private universities will feel somewhat emboldened to pursue race-conscious affirmative action policies,” he wrote on the blog. “But they should expect their judgment that such programs are necessary to be tested in the courts.”

—Staff writer Brandon J. Dixon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJoDixon.

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