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FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo, students walk near the Widener Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. A federal appeals court on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020 has upheld a district court decision clearing Harvard University of intentional discrimination against Asian American applicants. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) (AP)
FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo, students walk near the Widener Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. A federal appeals court on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020 has upheld a district court decision clearing Harvard University of intentional discrimination against Asian American applicants. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) (AP)

Harvard University wins appeals fight over race in college admissions

  • A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a ruling clearing Harvard University of discrimination against Asian American applicants
  • The decision delivers a blow to the group, Students for Fair Admissions, and moves the case a step closer to a possible review by the Supreme Court

Harvard University can continue to consider race in its admissions decisions after a federal appeals court ruled that it isn’t discriminating against Asian-Americans.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston on Thursday agreed with a lower court that the nation’s oldest college complies with the law in weighing race as one factor among many to select a diverse class.

“Race is one piece of Harvard’s interest in diversity," the court said.

But the legal fight is far from over. The plaintiffs seeking to force Harvard to abandon the practice, the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, is certain to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the ruling and toss out decades of precedent.

It’s unclear whether the high court, now with a 6-3 conservative majority, will agree to revisit the issue or choose to hear the Harvard case. The University of North Carolina and the University of Texas are defending themselves against similar challenges by SFFA, and President Donald Trump’s Justice Department has sued Yale University over its consideration of race. In the Harvard case, the Trump administration filed a brief in support of SFFA.

The other cases, which like Harvard’s come amid a fraught national reckoning on race, are in earlier stages.

‘Compelling Interest’

In a 104-page ruling, a two-judge panel said Harvard’s “limited use of race in its admissions process in order to achieve diversity" was “consistent" with Supreme Court precedent. The court found that Harvard had a “compelling interest" in considering race to create a diverse class and that its admissions program was “narrowly tailored" to achieve its goal, as the high court has required.

“Enabling students to understand, relate to, and learn from people of different backgrounds is one of the main goals of Harvard’s race-conscious admissions program," the panel said.

SFFA claimed that Harvard’s rating of applicants’ personal characteristics was skewed against Asian-Americans. At oral argument in September, Harvard lawyer Seth Waxman said the rating was just one of more than 200 variables the school considers when selecting a class of about 1,600 students from more than 40,000 applicants. A student application file is scrutinized over months by numerous admissions officers, he said.

“Every single applicant’s candidacy is decided following an en banc meeting of 40 admissions officers and invited faculty," Waxman told the court. “They have the whole file in front of them. They all listen to each other’s comments, they read all of the essays, the personal statements, the letters of recommendation."

More broadly, SFFA alleged that Harvard put its thumb on the scale in favor of African-American and Hispanic applicants in a number of ways. U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs last fall found that the Ivy League school didn’t set racial quotas or give outsize consideration to race when reviewing applicants.

Burroughs also concluded there was no workable “race-neutral" alternative to Harvard’s holistic admissions process to craft a diverse student body, which the Supreme Court has upheld as a legitimate educational objective. The appeals court agreed.

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