HR Policy Association

Harvard's "Race-Conscious" Admissions Process Ruled Constitutional

Published on: October 4, 2019

Topics: Employment Law, Inclusion and Diversity

In a highly scrutinized case with implications for employer diversity programs, a federal district court judge found “no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice” in Harvard University’s “race-conscious” admissions process.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed in 2014 by Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA), an anti-affirmative action group which has initiated legal action against other universities in the past.  SFFA alleged that Harvard's admissions process was too race conscious and discriminated against Asian-American applicants, using illegal "racial balancing" that held Asian-Americans to a higher standard than other applicants.

Harvard steadfastly defended its admissions process which it claimed was a holistic review of the "whole person" in which race was only one factor.  Harvard argued that using a completely race-blind admissions process would result in many minority applicants being shut out and campus diversity being greatly reduced.  Judge Burroughs agreed, finding race is only a "plus" factor in Harvard's admissions process, is adequately narrowly tailored so as not to penalize anyone for their race, and that such "racial categorizations are necessary to achieve [the goal of student body diversity]."

Outlook:  Even though the discrimination rules in academia involve different criteria than employment, employers are nevertheless watching this case closely to see whether the attitudes of the judiciary are shifting.  While it will likely be eventually considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision is certainly a victory for affirmative action and those institutions that utilize race-conscious programs to achieve greater diversity, whether it be on a college campus or in the workplace.


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