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Dept. of Education Opens Investigation Into Harvard’s Donor, Legacy Admissions Preferences

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into Harvard University's donor and legacy admissions preferences Tuesday.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into Harvard University's donor and legacy admissions preferences Tuesday. By Julian J. Giordano
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Miles J. Herszenhorn, Crimson Staff Writers

Updated July 25, 2023, at 4:08 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Education officially opened an investigation on Tuesday into the use of donor and legacy preferences in Harvard University’s admissions processes.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether the University’s use of donor and legacy preferences in its undergraduate admissions practices discriminates on the basis of race.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education confirmed in a statement Tuesday that the Department’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into Harvard under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The spokesperson declined to comment further, citing a policy against discussing ongoing investigations.

The investigation comes on the heels of a study published by Harvard economists on Monday that found Ivy League universities give significant admissions advantages to rich applicants over similarly qualified, less affluent students.

It also comes one day before the Education Department is set to host a National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education — a convening of Biden administration officials and leaders in higher education to discuss how to uphold commitments to equity and diversity following the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action.

Days after the Supreme Court effectively struck down affirmative action in higher education, the nonprofit group Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal complaint requesting an investigation into Harvard’s use of admissions preferences for children of alumni and wealthy donors.

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain confirmed Tuesday that the University was notified by the Education Department that it opened an investigation into its use of legacy and donor preferences in admissions.

Swain wrote in a statement that Harvard has undertaken an internal review of its admissions practices.

“Following the Supreme Court’s recent decision, we are in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard’s longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences,” Swain wrote.

“As this work continues, and moving forward, Harvard remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and to redoubling our efforts to encourage students from many different backgrounds to apply for admission,” Swain added.

The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education informed Lawyers for Civil Rights on Monday in a letter obtained by The Crimson that it launched an investigation into Harvard in response to their federal complaint.

The Education Department will probe “whether the University discriminates on the basis of race by using donor and legacy preferences in its undergraduate admissions process in violation of Title VI and its implementing regulations,” according to the letter.

The letter also stressed that the launch of the investigation does not mean that Harvard has been found to be in violation of Title VI.

“Please note that opening the complaint for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the complaint,” the letter states. “During the investigation, OCR is a neutral fact-finder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the Complainant, the University, and other sources, as appropriate.”

Michael A. Kippins, an attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said in an interview Tuesday that the nonprofit has been “concerned about these donor and legacy preferences for some time now.”

“We at Lawyers for Civil Rights decided to file this federal civil rights complaint in order to eliminate barriers that harm applicants of color and are contrary to production of diversity in higher education,” he said.

According to Kippins, the timeline for an investigation conducted by a federal agency can vary “widely.”

“Certainly, there’s an opportunity here for Harvard to voluntarily eliminate these preferences — which is the goal of our federal civil rights complaint,” he said. “And in which case, this would take away the need for the investigation.”

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.

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