Harvard raises red flag as Supreme Court agrees to review affirmative action


U.S. colleges and universities could “lose the freedom and flexibility to create diverse campus communities that enrich education for all,” Harvard president Larry S Bacow warned after the Supreme Court agreed Monday to review a challenge to the use of affirmative action in admissions.

The court’s decision to consider a pair of lawsuits accusing Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC) of discrimination against Asian American students could put Harvard’s 40 years of legal precedent for the practice at risk, Bacow warned.

The danger stems from the fact that the Supreme Court now has a 6-3 conservative majority with former President Donald Trump having named as many as three justices to the court.

“Our admissions process, in which race is considered one factor among many, makes us stronger,” Bacow wrote in a mail to the Harvard community, according to the news agency IANS. “It prompts learning in day-to-day exchanges in our classrooms and laboratories, in our residential houses, and on our playing fields and stages. Our students understand these truths and see them reflected in their interactions with their classmates. Diversity opens our eyes to the promise of a better future.”

Bacow, who was earlier chancellor at MIT and president at Tufts, said Harvard celebrates and nurtures individuality as intensely as the U.S. itself does. “Those who challenge our admissions policies would ask us to rely upon a process far more mechanistic, a process far more reliant on simple assessments of objective criteria,” he wrote.

“Each of us is, however, more than our numbers, more than our grades, more than our rankings or scores,” he continued. “Ask yourself how much have you learned from other people at this university. How much have you grown from conversations across differences? Would these conversations have been as rich if you had shared the same interests, the same life experiences, and — yes — the same racial or ethnic background as your fellow community members?”

This is why, he said, applications of any kind routinely go beyond “mere numbers” to include interviews, samples of work, and references. “Narrowly drawn measures of academic distinction are not the only indicators of individual promise,” he pointed out, adding significantly that even the Supreme Court has recognized that “race matters in the United States”.

“I long for the day when it does not, but we have miles to go before our journey is complete,” he said.

The lawsuits that the court will be taking up have been filed by the Virginia-based Students for Fair Admissions, which says race should play no part in the process. Examining six years of data at Harvard, the group found that Asian-American applicants had the strongest academic records but the lowest rates of admission compared to students of other races.

It also found that Harvard’s admissions officers gave Asian-Americans lower scores on a subjective rating designed to measure attributes such as likeability and kindness.

A federal judge upheld Harvard’s admissions practices in 2019, saying they were “not perfect” but passed constitutional muster and were justified by the compelling need for diversity on campuses. The ruling was upheld by an appeals court the following year.

The group has brought similar claims against UNC. A federal judge sided with the university last year.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the group has sought a review of both cases and to overturn the court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v Bollinger, which upheld admissions policies at the University of
Michigan’s law school. That cleared colleges to consider race if it’s done in a “narrowly tailored” way to serve a “compelling interest”. The group argues that the Grutter decision “endorsed racial objectives that are amorphous and unmeasurable and thus incapable of narrow tailoring”.