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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

In Harvard Affirmative Action Suit, Filings to Provide Rare Look at Admissions Process

Court filings in a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants are expected to reveal new details about how the school’s undergraduate admissions process affects different ethnic and racial groups.


Among the claims in the lawsuit are allegations that Harvard relies too heavily on race in its admissions decisions, and that the school engages in unlawful racial balancing.

A closely watched lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants is approaching a critical juncture, as court filings later this week are expected to reveal new details about how the school’s undergraduate admissions process affects different ethnic and racial groups.

Both sides are due to submit lengthy documents Friday in Boston federal court that will serve as a preview for an October bench trial, in which a federal judge will decide whether the school’s affirmative-action practices are unconstitutional or illegal under federal civil-rights law.

The lawsuit against Harvard was filed in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit whose members include Asian-American students who were denied admission to Harvard.

The plaintiffs allege Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian-Americans by limiting the number of Asian-American students who are admitted and holding them to a higher standard than students of other races.

Friday’s motions are likely to include thousands of pages of supporting documents both sides have gathered over the past two years, including dozens of depositions and statistical analyses of detailed admissions data covering six years, during which roughly 200,000 people applied to Harvard.

In a court filing from March, lawyers for Harvard said both sides have “submitted expert reports that analyze identical data yet reach diametrically opposed conclusions.”

Friday’s public filings could provide a rare look at how Harvard makes its undergraduate admissions decisions. Many documents in the case so far have been submitted to the court under seal, and both sides have tussled for years over which details can be made public, with Harvard citing concerns about applicants’ privacy.

The filings, known as motions for summary judgment, will ask the judge to resolve the case without going to trial. The judge has indicated she is unlikely to grant the motions, setting the stage for an Oct. 15 trial, which is estimated to last three to four weeks.

Among the claims in the lawsuit are allegations that Harvard relies too heavily on race in its admissions decisions, and that the school engages in unlawful racial balancing.

Harvard has previously said its admission process is consistent with legal precedents that allow universities to consider race as a factor in admissions to obtain the benefits of a diverse student body.

Drew Faust, the university’s president, said in a message Tuesday to Harvard students, faculty, staff and alumni that the plaintiffs will paint an “inaccurate image” of the school’s admissions processes and rely on “misleading, selectively presented data taken out of context.”

She said Harvard will defend “the processes by which it seeks to create a diverse educational community.”

Harvard admitted 4.6% of its 42,749 applicants for the incoming first-year undergraduate class. Of those who accepted their admission offers, 22.7% self-reported as Asian-American, 14.5% as African-Americans, 10.8% as Latino and 2.3% as Native American and Native Hawaiian.

Lawyers for Students for Fair Admissions say their goal is to reach the Supreme Court and overturn racial preferences in university admissions, ultimately eliminating affirmative action.

The group filed a similar lawsuit in 2014 against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is scheduled to go to trial in April 2019.

The nonprofit is led by Edward Blum, a conservative legal activist who also spearheaded a lawsuit against University of Texas at Austin’s admissions practices that landed in the Supreme Court.

In a 4-3 ruling upholding the use of racial preferences in public university admissions, Justice Anthony Kennedy left the door open in 2016 to future legal challenges by saying universities must continue to review their affirmative-action policies to assess their positive and negative effects.

The Harvard lawsuit formed the basis for a separate complaint filed with the Justice Department’s civil-rights division in 2015 by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups.

Last summer, in response to that complaint, the Justice Department launched its own investigation into whether Harvard’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

In a November letter, Harvard’s lawyers raised concerns about the “highly unusual nature” of the investigation, citing the Justice Department’s decision to probe a years-old complaint.

The Justice Department filed a motion in April on behalf of the plaintiffs, arguing for public access to Friday’s filings. The government said the public “has a paramount interest in any proof of these allegations, Harvard’s responses to them, and the Court’s resolution of this dispute.”

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