Education Law

Harvard legacy admissions challenged in Education Department complaint

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Nearly 70% of donor-related and legacy applicants at Harvard are white, according to a press release and a complaint by Lawyers for Civil Rights. Image from Shutterstock.

Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a complaint with the federal government Monday that challenges Harvard’s practice of giving a boost in admissions to children of alumni and wealthy donors.

The July 3 complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, claims that the legacy admissions program violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The complaint followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 29 decision striking down affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

The Supreme Court decision is Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. The decision held that the universities’ race-conscious admissions programs violate the equal protection clause and Title VI, which bans discrimination in federal programs receiving federal financial assistance.

The new complaint seeks an investigation and a declaration that the preferences for children of alumni and donors are illegal under Title VI, according to a press release by Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The New York Times, Reuters and the Volokh Conspiracy are among the publications with coverage.

Nearly 70% of donor-related and legacy applicants at Harvard are white, according to the press release and the complaint. Admitting more applicants in this group disadvantages applicants of color, the complaint said.

“A benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter,” the complaint said, citing language from the Supreme Court’s June 29 decision.

The complaint was filed on behalf of three Massachusetts groups—the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network, according to the press release.

Writing at the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, said he doesn’t think that legacy preferences violate anti-discrimination laws.

But Somin noted a second argument advanced by Carlton F.W. Larson, a professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law: That such preferences by public universities violate the Constitution’s ban on titles of nobility.

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