As Justice Department steps in, federal appeals court hears Harvard admissions case

Students for Fair Admissions raised the initial challenge of Harvard’s admissions process, and in 2018, the Justice Department filed a statement of support in the lower court. But this is the first time that she has pleaded orally in this case.

The increased role of the Department of Justice at this point highlights the agency’s increasingly aggressive challenge to the use of race in admissions. In August, the Justice Department threatened to sue Yale University for its use of race in admissions, claiming the New Haven school discriminated against Asian-American and white applicants.

Under current law, universities are allowed to consider race in assessing applicants in order to create a more diverse campus as long as it is used closely and administrators have considered other alternatives, such as admissions based on socio-economic criteria.

Affirmative action opponents have been trying to end race-conscious college admissions for decades. Legal experts predict that the Harvard case could eventually end up in the United States Supreme Court, where a more conservative panel of judges could end affirmative action in higher education.

“It’s no surprise that this is the kind of case that would end up in the Supreme Court,” said Art Coleman, former deputy assistant secretary in the civil rights office of the US Department of Education during the Clinton administration. Coleman was one of some 500 people who listened live to the hearing before the First Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

The court of appeal will probably rule in the coming months.

Yet students for fair admissions face an uphill battle to get the lower court’s decision overturned, Coleman said.

Students for Fair Admissions argued that Harvard admits Asian Americans at lower rates, given their share in the applicant pool. The group also argues that Asian Americans score lower than the Personal Score, which Harvard uses to assess candidates and measure qualities such as courage, kindness and leadership.

After a three-week trial last year, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs disagreed.

In his 130-page decision, Burroughs offered a strong defense for the continued use of the breed in admissions. Although Burroughs said the college admissions process could be improved with more training and supervision to avoid potential implicit bias, she called Harvard’s admissions process “very good” and legally sound.

Yet Edward Blum, the leader of Students for Fair Admissions, who also unsuccessfully challenged the University of Texas affirmative action process several years ago, said he hoped the first circuit will reverse the decision. He noted that the appeals court was well aware of the details of the case, which relied heavily on competing statistical reviews of admission data.

“We hope this court will carefully consider the massive amount of compelling evidence we presented at trial that proved Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian Americans and will overturn the lower court’s ruling,” Blum said in a statement. .

During Wednesday’s hearing, judges noted that Burroughs had found no evidence of intentional discrimination and expressed skepticism about whether unintended bias was grounds for overturning the lower court’s decision.

“I’m just trying to understand your point,” Judge Sandra L. Lynch told the student lawyer for fair admissions.

Another judge asked if there was any evidence of racial stereotypes.

Personal scoring also continued to be a major concern of the appeals court. In his ruling, Burroughs acknowledged that Asian-American applicants had lower personal scores overall, but said the reasons for the disparities were unclear and may have been due to recommendations from counselors and teachers at the secondary and could be the result of an implicit bias.

Seth Waxman, a Harvard attorney, defended the university’s use of a personal assessment and said it took on disproportionate importance in the case, becoming something of a “Frankenstein,” he said. he declares.

Harvard, who denies that his process puts Asian American applicants at a disadvantage, said he uses personal score as one of many factors to assess the more than 40,000 applicants seeking admission to his freshman class of 1 600 places.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.

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