Lawsuits regarding race in admissions filed against Harvard, UNC—with more to follow

Schools maintain policies are fair, legal

A group on Monday filed lawsuits challenging the attention given to race in admissions at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) and Harvard University.

Students for Fair Admissions and unidentified Asian-American and white applicants turned down by Harvard and UNC-CH, respectively, were named as plaintiffs by the Project on Fair Representation, the same organization that led the challenge to affirmative action at University of Texas at Austin.

The lawsuits allege the institutions do not fulfill the standard for race-based admissions determined by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas. The groups say they plan to target other schools with similar admissions policies in the future, and have named at least one—the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Harvard case

Students for Fair Representation v. President and Fellows of Harvard College claims the school discriminates against Asian-Americans. Specifically, the plaintiffs argue that today's admission policies stem from the institution's former efforts to limit the number of enrolled Jewish students, which began in the 1920s.

One Asian-American plaintiff ranked first in her high school class and earned perfect scores on two SAT II tests and the ACT—but was rejected from Harvard's 2014 freshman class.

The case is built on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VI, which disqualifies institutions from receiving federal funds if they are found to be discriminating based on race.

The lawsuit also cites the "Harvard Plan" discussed by Justice Lewis Powell Jr. in his 1978 controlling opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, calling it "an elaborate mechanism for hiding Harvard's systematic campaign of racial and ethnic discrimination against certain disfavored classes of applicants."

The Chapel Hill case

Students for Fair Representation v. University of North Carolina claims the system's policies infringe on the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause, along with Title VI, alleging the institution's "racial preference for each underrepresented minority student... is so large that race becomes the defining feature of his or her application."

The white plaintiff ranked near the top of his class and earned 2180 out of 2400 on his SAT.

The schools respond

Both schools pushed back against the allegations, stressing that their universities are committed to following federal law.

Harvard's general counsel Robert Iuliano argued that the school's admissions policies fully comply with all legal requirements. Harvard's current admissions criteria are "essential to the pedagogical objectives that underlie Harvard's educational mission," Iuliano said, and support the school's "goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide-range of differences: backgrounds, ideas, experiences, talents, and aspirations."

Rick White, associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs at UNC-CH, noted that Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights reviewed the school's admissions process in 2012—and found that it met federal regulations. The school's "use of race in the admissions process is consistent with federal law," White said in a statement.

He also added that UNC-CH filed a brief in Fisher, which read "the university continues to affirm the educational benefits diversity brings to students, as well as the importance of preparing students for a diverse society and assuring a pool of strong state leaders by admitting undergraduates from every background" (Walsh, "The Law School Blog," Education Week, 11/17; Anderson, Washington Post, 11/17; Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/18).

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