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Justice Department Says Harvard Illegally Discriminates Against Asian American Applicants

The United States Department of Justice said in a court document that Harvard illegally discriminates against Asian American applicants.
The United States Department of Justice said in a court document that Harvard illegally discriminates against Asian American applicants. By Caroline S. Engelmayer
By Delano R. Franklin and Samuel W. Zwickel, Crimson Staff Writers

This article has been updated.

The United States Department of Justice said in a court filing Thursday morning that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies perpetrate “unlawful racial discrimination” against Asian American applicants.

“The record evidence demonstrates that Harvard’s race-based admissions process significantly disadvantages Asian-American applicants compared to applicants of other racial groups — including both white applicants and applicants from other racial minority groups,” department officials wrote.

The Justice Department’s criticism came as part of a “statement of interest” it filed in the ongoing admissions lawsuit that alleges Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process. Its filing is meant to oppose the University’s earlier motion that the suit be dismissed before it goes to trial.

Harvard spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote in an emailed statement that the University resents the department’s interference. She added that Harvard continues to deny all charges of discrimination.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Department of Justice has taken the side of Edward Blum and Students for Fair Admissions, recycling the same misleading and hollow arguments that prove nothing more than the emptiness of the case against Harvard,” Cowenhoven wrote.

Anti-affirmative action advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions first brought suit against Harvard four years ago. Helmed by conservative litigant Edward Blum, the group argues Harvard is trying to "racially engineer" its student body. SFFA's ultimate goal is to end the use of race in college admissions, a mission experts say the lawsuit may accomplish if it reaches the Supreme Court.

The suit has already had some consequences. Over the course of summer 2018, hundreds of pages of internal College documents related to the admissions process became public as part of the summary judgment phase of the lawsuit.

Department lawyers specifically pointed to various revelations that proceeded from the documents’ release — including the discovery that College admissions officers consistently gave Asian-American applicants lower scores for their personal traits — as proof that Harvard’s admissions policies are discriminatory.

“The evidence… shows that Harvard provides no meaningful criteria to cabin its use of race; uses a vague ‘personal rating’ that harms Asian-American applicant’s chances for admission and may be infected with racial bias; engages in unlawful racial balancing; and has never seriously considered race-neutral alternatives in its more than 45 years of using race to make admissions decisions,” department lawyers wrote.

The lawyers cited Harvard’s receipt of federal funding as justification for the Justice Department’s involvement in the suit. Referencing an earlier Supreme Court opinion, attorneys argued the department must work to ensure that tax dollars “do not serve to finance the evil of private prejudice.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a press release announcing the filing that the department is intervening in the case to defend the civil rights of the American people.

"No American should be denied admission to school because of their race," Sessions said. "As a recipient of taxpayer dollars, Harvard has a responsibility to conduct its admissions policy without racial discrimination by using meaningful admissions criteria that meet lawful requirements."

The memo, signed by Acting Assistant Attorney General John M. Gore, heavily cites the testimony of Harvard admissions officers— including Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 — as well as internal University research which the Justice Department says reveals how the school's admissions process “harms” Asian-American applicants.

Harvard’s research office concluded in a series of reports circulated among top administrators in 2013 that the College’s admissions policies produce “negative effects” for Asian Americans. But the reports were never made public — until the lawsuit required their release — and did not spur College officials to take significant action to address the situation.

In their filing, Department lawyers specifically took Harvard to task for failing to act on that report.

“Harvard admits that, on average, it scores Asian-American applicants lower on the personal rating than white applicants,” lawyers wrote. “Yet when an internal Harvard report pointed out that the personal rating may be infused with racial bias and sought authorization to study the issue further, Harvard buried it.”

This is not the first time the Justice Department has intervened in the suit. The department requested the unsealing of previously confidential Harvard admissions documents and data in April.

It is also independently conducting a Title VI investigation into Harvard in response to the allegations that the College discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Lawyers for the department wrote in Thursday's filing that that probe is active and ongoing.

The Trump administration is tackling affirmative action in other quarters, too. In early July, the Justice Department and the Department of Education penned a "Dear Colleague" letter notifying universities that the government was withdrawing Obama-era recommendations that encouraged race-conscious admissions.

At the time, a University spokesperson said that Harvard plans to ignore the retraction of the old guidance and "will continue to vigorously defend its right, and that of all colleges and universities" to consider race as a factor in the admissions process.

Blum wrote in an emailed statement Thursday that SFFA is pleased with recent events.

“Students for Fair Admissions is gratified that, after careful analysis of the evidence submitted in this case, the US Department of Justice has concluded Harvard’s admissions policies are in violation of our nation’s civil rights laws,” Blum wrote.

Harvard student groups and legal organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union also filed amicus briefs Thursday, though theirs argued in support of Harvard and its admissions policies.

The case is set to go to trial in a Boston courthouse on Oct. 15

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @delanofranklin_.

—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel.

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