“Harvard has an ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continuous reflection regarding its admissions policies,” Judge Sandra Lynch wrote for the Jury of Appeal, finding that “the limited use of race” by the school in its admission policy to achieve diversity complies with Supreme Judicial Precedent.
“Harvard has shown that its holistic consideration of race is not objectionable,” Lynch wrote.
The ruling will certainly lead to a new battle over racial affirmative action in the U.S. Supreme Court, which has long supported such campus practices, but with narrow margins of a vote. The new composition of the conservative-liberal 6-3 bench could threaten an end to practices that have increased admissions of traditionally disadvantaged minority students and improved campus diversity nationwide.
Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, which launched the lawsuit in November 2014, said the decision will be appealed. Blum has long opposed racial policies that have primarily benefited blacks and Hispanics. He lost a Supreme Court case against the University of Texas in 2016, brought by white student Abigail Fisher.
One of the main points of contention was Harvard’s use of a “personal” score, in addition to academic and extracurricular grades, which the SFFA challengers said allowed admissions officials to improve the prospects of students. black and Hispanic applicants and disadvantage Asian Americans.
The appeals court on Thursday dismissed the claim, as did U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs after a three-week trial.
The SFFA challengers had argued that flexible “personal” assessment led to the racial stereotyping of Asian Americans. During the trial, the SFFA argued that Asian Americans were classified as one-dimensional or just “book smart.”
But the appeals court approved the trial judge’s findings rejecting stereotypes and concluding that personal ratings were not influenced by race.
Commenting favorably on the practices of the Ivy League school, Lynch wrote that “Harvard’s interest in diversity is not an interest in mere ethnic diversity, in which a specified percentage of the student body is in guaranteed to be a member of certain ethnic groups, but a much wider range of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is only a unique but important element. ”
Lynch’s opinion was signed by Chief Justice Jeffrey Howard. Judge Juan Torruella also heard arguments in the case last September; he died at the end of October.
To the SFFA’s claim that Harvard imposes “a racial sanction” on Asian Americans, Harvard attorneys argued that Asian Americans do well in its system.
For its new class of 2024, Harvard said, Asian Americans make up 24.6% of the class; African Americans 13.9%; Latinx 11.8%; and Native Americans and Hawaiian Indians, 2.0%. The remaining category, 47.7%, is mostly made up of white students.
Harvard attorneys also noted throughout the litigation that when the Supreme Court in 1978 first upheld affirmative action, judges favorably cited the Harvard model.
In the 1978 decision, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the High Court allowed colleges and universities to consider race as a “plus” factor among many admission criteria, but outlawed quotas.
Thursday’s appeals court ruling brings the battle over racial admissions closer to a standoff in the Supreme Court, which first approved racial affirmative action designed for diversity on campuses in 1978 by a vote of 5-4. In addition to the University of Texas dispute in 2016, the high court upheld admissions programs that take into account a student’s race, in Michigan’s 2003 case.
This 2003 step, as well as the Bakke decision, remains the law. That could change with the new conservative dominance of the six judges. If the court were to resume the appeal from the Harvard challengers, the case would likely not be heard until later in 2021.