Education Law

Justice Department intervenes in support of Asian-American students suing Harvard

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Radcliffe Quadrangle (The Quad) at Harvard University. Jorge Salcedo /

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit alleging that Harvard College discriminates against Asian-Americans with its affirmative action policy. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Harvard Crimson have stories.

The Harvard case—brought by Students for Fair Admissions, the same nonprofit that took Fisher v. University of Texas to the U.S. Supreme Court—argues that Harvard’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian-Americans. The DOJ agreed in its filing Thursday.

“No American should be denied admission to school because of their race,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a press release. “As a recipient of taxpayer dollars, Harvard has a responsibility to conduct its admissions policy without racial discrimination by using meaningful admissions criteria that meet lawful requirements.”

Students for Fair Admissions first sued Harvard four years ago, but discovery in the lawsuit this summer released hundreds of the school’s internal documents to the public, the Crimson says. The Justice Department’s statement relies on some of those documents, saying they show Harvard uses racial balancing of its incoming classes, despite Supreme Court rulings against the practice. The Department also says Harvard uses a “personal rating” to evaluate applicants, rating students on their “likability,” “positive personality” and other subjective criteria. Harvard’s records show that Asian-American applicants do worse on this rating than white applicants, on average.

“Harvard admits that, on average, it scores Asian-American applicants lower on the personal rating than white applicants,” the DOJ filing says. “Yet when an internal Harvard report pointed out that the personal rating may be infused with racial bias and sought authorization to study the issue further, Harvard buried it.”

Then-Harvard president Drew Faust said in June that the plaintiffs are relying on “misleading, selectively presented data taken out of contest.” A statement put out by Harvard said the Justice Department was “recycling the same misleading and hollow arguments that prove nothing more than the emptiness of the case against Harvard.”

“Harvard does not discriminate against applicants from any group, and will continue to vigorously defend the legal right of every college and university to consider race as one factor among many in college admissions, which the Supreme Court has consistently upheld for more than 40 years,” the university said.

DOJ’s statement of interest opposes Harvard’s motion for summary judgment, which would end the case without a trial. The Washington Post says the case will likely be tried in October in the District of Massachusetts.

DOJ is separately investigating Harvard under Title VI for complaints that it discriminates against Asian-Americans.

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