Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard Coll. (Harvard Corp.), 261 F. Supp. 3d 99, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84663, 2017 WL 2407255 (D. Mass., 2015)

AAUP joined an amicus brief prepared by the American Council on Education (ACE) (and joined by thirty-six higher education organizations) for submission to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Boston Division, in opposition to the motion for summary judgment by Students for Fair Admissions (SAFFA), which challenges Harvard College’s admissions policies. For many years, the AAUP has advocated in favor of affirmative action in higher education, emphasizing the educational value of diversity, through amicus briefs in Supreme Court cases from Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978 to Fisher v. Texas in 2016, and through AAUP policy. See “Affirmative Action Plans: Recommended Procedures for Increasing the Number of Minority Persons and Women on College and University Faculties,” AAUP, Policy Documents and Reports, 157-163 (11th ed. 2015). This amicus brief argues that “a diverse student body is essential to the educational objectives of colleges and universities, and that each institution should be able to exercise its academic judgment to determine within broad limits the diversity that will advance its individual mission.” The brief further argues that holistic review (of applications) remains a cornerstone for race-conscious admissions because it gives each applicant individualized consideration and reduces no one to her race.

The case arose in 2014 when SFFA filed a lawsuit alleging that Harvard College discriminates against Asian-American students in its admissions processes. In its complaint, SFFA claims Harvard uses “racially and ethnically discriminatory policies and procedures in administering the undergraduate admissions program at Harvard College in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Specifically, the suit alleges Harvard’s use of race in its admissions process holds Asian-American applicants to a higher standard, that Harvard engages in “racial balancing,” that it uses race as a dominant factor in its admissions decisions, and that it overlooks race-neutral alternatives when choosing which students to admit. In response to the claims, Harvard has consistently denied that it has engaged in racial discrimination or suppressed the number of Asian-American students. Instead, Harvard says that it reviews every aspect of each applicant’s background and experience in order to develop a diverse student body that university officials say helps better prepare undergraduates to succeed in a society where working with people who have different life experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds is increasingly essential; and that this review process comports with federal law and a string of previous US Supreme Court rulings. The parties filed pre-trial summary judgment motions and a trial in this case is scheduled for mid-October 2018.        

SFFA’s motion for summary judgment, in substance, asks the court to require fundamental changes to university admissions processes and to mandate a more mechanical process in which educators’ ability to choose which academic and other criteria they wish to use, weigh and apply play next to no role. The brief argues that “that shift would undermine the recognized freedom of a university to assemble a class that, in the university’s judgment, will best advance that university’s particular mission.” In Fisher II, 136 S. Ct. 2198 (2016), our brief successfully argued that the importance of student diversity and its status as a compelling interest could not be seriously disputed. The current amicus relies on the US Supreme Court’s analysis set forth in Fisher II—“Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining. . . intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” 136 S. Ct. at 2214. The amicus further argues that court should “reject SFFA’s effort to upset decades of Supreme Court precedent and permit Harvard College to pursue the version of diversity that best suits their mission and goals, including through the limited consideration of race.”

The amicus also argues that Harvard’s holistic review (of applications) is supported by Supreme Court precedent. “Because the holistic review focuses on individual applicants . . . consideration of race as one aspect of this process is permissible.” Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244, 337; Fisher II, 136 S. Ct. at 2205. Holistic review does not treat “an applicant’s race or ethnicity [as] the defining feature of his or her application.” Grutter, 539 U.S. at 337. Finally, the brief argues that the court should reject SFFA’s effort to upset decades of Supreme Court precedent that has approved of holistic and individualized admissions processes, “a victory for plaintiff could upend this evolved and evolving system. In a nation that is more connected and racially and ethnically diverse than ever, such an outcome would deprive many students of the critical benefits of campus diversity and thus education they will need as citizens and leaders in the 21st century.”

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