On Monday, June 14, the U.S. Supreme Court postponed action on a major challenge to Harvard’s consideration of race in undergraduate admissions. The Supreme Court ordered the Biden administration to comment on the legal challenge alleging that Harvard was illegally discriminating against Asian-American undergraduate applicants.
The case was initially filed against Harvard by the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) and other plaintiffs in 2014 at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. The lawsuit argued that the university was racially discriminating against Asian-Americans in its undergraduate admission process, and imposed a soft racial quota to artificially manipulate numbers.
The District Court judge rejected the plaintiffs’ claim on Oct. 1, 2019, ruling that the admission practices of Harvard were not discriminatory against Asian-Americans and were in line with the constitution. SFAA appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the previous court’s decision. Finally, in February this year, the organization approached the U.S. Supreme Court.
By involving the Biden administration, the Supreme Court has delayed, by at least a couple of months, making a decision on whether it would hear the case. Previously, the Trump administration had advised educational institutions against using race as a criterion for admissions, thus taking a stance against the pro-diversity guidelines that President Barack Obama had issued in conjunction with the Education and Justice departments.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy issued an executive order to use “affirmative action” for the first time. The order instructed federal contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
In the context of educational institutions, the U.S. Supreme Court made a judgement regarding affirmative action in the 1978 University of California v. Bakke case. The court allowed race-based affirmative action in educational institutions, but ruled that racial quotas, such as reserving a portion of seats for certain races, was impermissible.
The number of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has remained stable at around 16 to 19 percent despite the fact that the Asian population in the U.S. has doubled. According to a Princeton study conducted in 2009, Asians were required to score 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than black students on the SAT to “equalize” their probability of admission to prestigious universities.
SFFA accused Harvard admissions officers of assigning student applicants a subjective “personal rating” that specifically discriminated against Asian Americans. The SFFA presented evidence in the form of six years of admission data, in which Asian American applicants ranked highest from an academic perspective but were awarded the lowest personal ratings, resulting in lower admission rates.
While presenting the case to judges, SFFA attorney William Consovoy stated that Harvard’s admission process could be considered illegal racial balancing. He said, “The statistical evidence in this case showed that the personal rating discriminates against Asian Americans in a statistically significant way.”
In a press release following the Supreme Court’s decision, the leader of the challenge, Edward Bloom, stated that his group “remains hopeful that, regardless of the views of the (Biden administration’s) solicitor general, the justices will grant to hear our case and end race-based affirmative action in college admissions.”
Currently, eight states have banned race as a consideration in university admissions – Oklahoma, Washington, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Arizona, Florida, California, and Michigan.