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‘Politically Motivated’: Experts Weigh in on Harvard Decision to Not Report Racial Composition of Early Action Admits

Harvard did not report the racial and ethnic composition of students admitted early to the Class of 2028.
Harvard did not report the racial and ethnic composition of students admitted early to the Class of 2028. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Emma H. Haidar, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard did not report the racial and ethnic composition of students admitted in the early application cycle for the Class of 2028, a move some experts saw as the University’s attempt to avoid potential litigation from anti-affirmative action groups.

The decision to not disclose the data comes as the College navigates its first admissions cycle since the Supreme Court ruled race-conscious admissions practices unconstitutional.

Harvard College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said in an interview Thursday that the admissions office plans to report racial and ethnic data sometime in the summer, once all admissions decisions, including waitlists, are complete.

“Based on advice of counsel,” Fitzsimmons said, “admission officers will not have access to data on race or ethnicity until the admissions process is entirely over.”

Jonathan P. Feingold, a professor at Boston University School of Law, said Harvard opting to report racial composition later in the process “is more politically motivated than it is a pure legal question.”

“Regardless of what the racial composition looks like, there’s a good chance that someone is going to be unhappy, and it’s likely going to — at a minimum — create a public relations challenge for the institution,” Feingold added.

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment for this article.

Vinay Harpalani, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, said releasing any racial data now could fuel future accusations of non-compliance with the Supreme Court ruling from anti-affirmative action groups.

“That could, number one, open them up to people saying, ‘You’re engaging in racial balancing. This is what the data is in December, so that’s going to affect what you do later on,’” he said. “And anyone who wants to challenge — a plaintiff, a lawyer — they’ll find a way of using that data against Harvard.”

After Students for Fair Admissions — the anti-affirmative action group that the Supreme Court sided with in June — sued Harvard in 2014, alleging that the College’s race-conscious admissions practices discriminated against Asian American applicants, Harvard spent years engaged in court.

And its admissions process is still under scrutiny.

After nine years embroiled in costly litigation against SFFA, Harvard found its admissions practices under federal scrutiny when the Department of Education opened an investigation into the College’s admissions preferences for legacy students and children of donors.

SFFA has also positioned itself as a watchdog in the wake of the ruling and has sued law firms, the United States Military Academy, and the United States Naval Academy over affirmative action policies.

“We remain vigilant and intend to initiate litigation should universities defiantly flout this clear ruling and the dictates of Title VI and the Equal Protection clause,” Edward J. Blum, SFFA’s president, said in a press conference on the day of the Court’s ruling.

SFFA declined to comment for this article.

Feingold said that Harvard could also face “potential legal exposure” from civil rights groups over its early action policies. Harvard’s decision to not report the racial composition of the students admitted in the early action round comes amid criticism that across the Ivy League and private universities, early application cycles draw mostly white and wealthy applicants.

Some of Harvard’s peer institutions are reevaluating their early decision policies.

At Brown University, President Christina H. Paxson formed an ad hoc committee in September to examine the university’s early decision round, according to The Brown Daily Herald.

Still, some observers said that Harvard’s decision not to release demographic data for students admitted early would inhibit the ability to understand the consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Jon M. Greenbaum, chief counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, wrote in an emailed statement Saturday that it was “disappointing” that Harvard did not release the racial composition of students admitted through early action.

“As we assess the impact of the Supreme Court decision in SFFA v. Harvard, one important component is knowing the degree of any changes in racial composition under the post-decision admission policy as compared to the pre-decision policy,” Greenbaum wrote.

Joshua S. Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, wrote in a statement that not collecting “data on the racial composition of early decision applicants and admits will make it harder for Harvard — and every other institution — to understand and address inequities in the early action/decision processes.”

Harpalani — the University of New Mexico law professor — said that early action policies have had a mixed impact on the racial demographics of admitted students.

“We’re not exactly sure what it is at each school,” he said. “But the fact that they’re not releasing the data stops us from knowing that.”

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at michelle.amponsah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X at @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at emma.haidar@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

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