A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Harvard University does not discriminate against Asian Americans in undergraduate admissions, handing the school a victory in a lawsuit that marks one of the latest chapters in the affirmative action debate.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs rejected claims that Harvard violates the law as it considers race in selecting incoming freshmen classes. While Harvard’s “admissions process may be imperfect,” Burroughs wrote, she concluded that statistical disparities among racial groups of applicants “are not the result of any racial animus or conscious prejudice.”

The judge also found that Harvard “narrowly tailored” its use of race in admissions program to achieve the benefits of a diverse class.

Edward Blum

Edward Blum, the part-time Maine resident who serves as president of Students for Fair Admissions, which filed the suit in 2014 on behalf of rejected Asian American applicants to Harvard, said in a telephone interview with the Portland Press Herald Tuesday night that the Virginia-based organization notified the court Tuesday that it plans to appeal the judge’s decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

Blum said that he and the nonprofit believe that race and ethnicity should never play a role in the college admissions process.

“The mission of this organization is to eliminate the use of race in college admissions,” Blum said. “Race and ethnicity should never be a factor. Admissions at America’s public universities should be color blind.”

Students for Fair Admissions will bring the case before the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, Blum said by phone from his seasonal home in South Thomaston, Maine.

Blum, 67, has been challenging race-based policies for more than 25 years, starting with a suit alleging that Texas officials had engaged in “racial gerrymandering” in drawing the lines of a Houston Congressional District. He had run as a Republican in the the district and lost. The Supreme Court ultimately ordered Texas to redraw the lines for three districts.

He subsequently established two nonprofit foundations to pay for similar lawsuits, including one in Alabama that led to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other lawsuits have challenged college admissions standards that consider race.

“Students for Fair Admissions is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies,” Blum said in a statement issued Tuesday. “We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian American applicants.”

Tuesday’s ruling was highly anticipated because the case was seen as a challenge not only to Harvard but to all colleges and universities that take race into account when they build a class.

The issue has roused passions among many Asian Americans who fear they are subject to hidden quotas at elite schools, similar to the roadblocks Jewish students often faced early in the 20th century. But others defend affirmative action as a matter of social justice, with profound educational benefits.

The ruling also comes at a time of national debate over race, class and access to higher education as a scandal over a cheating and bribery scam to help the children of rich parents get into prominent universities has shaken public confidence this year in the admission system.

Around the world, Harvard is renowned for exclusivity. Of the 43,330 students who applied to enter as freshmen this fall, Harvard offered admission to 1,950, or 4.5 percent. That means roughly 19 of every 20 applicants were denied. The expected size of the class is about 1,660.

Of those admitted, Harvard said, 25.4 percent identified as Asian American, 14.8 percent as African American and 12.4 percent as Latino. The Asian American share of admits has risen in recent years – a telltale sign, the plaintiff argued, that Harvard had adjusted its practices under pressure from the lawsuit.

The university did not specify the white share of admissions for the Class of 2023, but federal data show that a plurality of its undergraduates are white students from the United States.

At its heart, the case centered on whether Harvard discriminated against Asian American applicants, imposing a racial penalty on them in the review of their files and limiting their share in the admitted class to make room for other groups. Harvard denied all of those claims.

The ruling from Burroughs landed months after the trial’s closing arguments and nearly five years after the case began.

Students for Fair Admissions filed the lawsuit against Harvard in November 2014. Blum, a critic of race-based affirmative action who is white, helped organize legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act and the admissions process at the University of Texas at Austin. Among the group’s members are Asian Americans who applied to Harvard and were denied admission. Their names and details about their applications have not been disclosed.

Blum cited a February 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center which found that 73 percent of Americans surveyed said colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions. In that survey, 7 percent said race should be a major factor while 19 percent said it should be a minor factor.

The Pew survey also found that Republicans and those who lean toward the views of the Republican Party are far more likely than Democrats and those who agree with Democratic Party views to say that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions. The survey said 85 percent of Republicans versus 63 percent of Democrats felt that way.

Blum and his wife, Lark, live in South Thomaston five months a year, relocating to Tallahassee, Florida, for the winter.

“In late October, when I’m unable to feel my fingers, we head south,” he said Tuesday night.

The couple, who were married in Houston nearly 40 years ago, spent their honeymoon in Maine, driving up the coast from Portland to Rockland, Camden and Bar Harbor.

“My wife turned to me and said I want to live here some day,” Blum said.

He said that he and his wife were struck by the state’s natural beauty and that it “was filled with interesting, quirky, and lovely people. We fit right in.”

In June 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions at University of Texas-Austin.

The 4-3 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, was a defeat for Blum and his allies. It preserved the status quo for affirmative action: Universities are allowed to consider race as one factor among many in a “holistic” review of an applicant’s background and credentials. But they are not allowed to set racial targets or quotas, and they must review whether alternatives, such as geographic or socioeconomic preferences, would be workable and could accomplish the same goals.

Kennedy has since retired, and conservatives hope his replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, will push the court in a new direction on affirmative action.

Press Herald Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: