Moving quickly to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s historic new ban on the use of race in admitting students to colleges, three minority rights groups asked the federal government on Monday to stop Harvard from giving special treatment to children of alumni and donors.
Those preferences go to applicants about 70 percent of whom are white, according to the challenge filed at the U.S. Department of Education. If that succeeds, Harvard either would have to end those preferences or else give up nearly $650 million a year in federal funds.
“Each year,” the complaint argued, “Harvard College grants special preferences in its admissions process to hundreds of mostly white students – not because of anything they have accomplished, but solely because of who their relatives are.”
Harvard’s entry process also gives special preferences to those with skills in sports and those who are children of faculty and staff members, but those two categories were not challenged in the complaint filed by Massachusetts-based advocacy groups for black, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, Pacific Islander and multi-racial individuals.
Their challenge asked federal education officials to investigate the practices at issue and then rule that those must stop immediately if Harvard wants to continue receiving any financial assistance from the federal government. In the most recent year for which data was cited, Harvard received about $642 million in such funds.
The group also asked for an order to adopt admissions practices that prevent any applicant from identifying any family tie to Harvard – at least as to alumni and donors – in seeking admission. The complaint did not say why the groups would allow Harvard faculty and staff to benefit from admissions plans for their children, but perhaps regarded those as employment benefits not linked to race.
The Massachusetts groups built much of their new case on data gathered in the federal court case that led to last Thursday’s 6-to-3 Supreme Court decision that declared unconstitutional almost all uses of race as a factor influencing admissions decisions. That decision involved both Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
That ruling has set education institutions across the country scrambling for ways to cope, since they were left with very few options to try to ensure that their student body represents diversity in background or characteristics. One way to cope that is already being suggested by critics of racial preferences was to end the kind of special preferences at issue in the new complaint against Harvard based on the claim of white favoritism.
The new challenge was based on Title VI of the 1964 federal civil rights law, which forbids discrimination based on “race, color or national origin.” That law gives the Department of Education the authority to cut off all federal funding for any education program that receives federal funds and discriminates in any part of its program. The Department also can order the end of practices it finds illegal, if a challenged institution wants to continue receiving federal aid.
Although Harvard and other universities vigorously defend their preferences for children of alumni and major donors as essential to their missions, the new complaint argued that those forms of favoritism have no relationship to educational goals or quality and that, in fact, many elite institutions compete well for students without such preferences.
The complaint relied heavily on last week’s Supreme Court ruling, including its basic finding that if a college or university gives preferences to any favored candidate, that has the direct effect of denying a place for a disfavored applicant.
The groups also asserted that preferences like those it challenged at Harvard have sweeping consequences in the admissions process, citing data that applicants related to alumni are nearly six times more likely than those without such ties to gain entry, and that those related to donors are seven times more likely to be selected.
Since nearly 70 percent of those in the favored categories are white applicants, the complaint contended, the “zero sum” effect necessarily discriminates against “students of color, including blacks, Latinx, and Asian Americans.” That, the groups said, is illegal discrimination under Title VI.
Last week’s ruling against Harvard and North Carolina’s flagship state university was based primarily on the Constitution’s guarantee of racial equality (in the Fourteenth Amendment), but also on Title VI, since the Court interprets that ban on discrimination in education as parallel to the reach of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Because Harvard is a private institution, not a part of government, it is not bound by the Constitution; the North Carolina institution is run by that state’s government and it receives federal funds so it must obey both the Constitution and Title VI.