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Pa., N.J. college officials laud judge’s decision in Harvard affirmative action case

A federal judge ruled that Harvard University's admissions practices were constitutional, but the affirmative action case could go to the Supreme Court where it may face a tougher test.

An aerial view of Harvard University campus in 2013. Harvard defeated a lawsuit attempting to stop the school from using race as a factor in admissions.
An aerial view of Harvard University campus in 2013. Harvard defeated a lawsuit attempting to stop the school from using race as a factor in admissions.Read moreAndrea Pistolesi/TIPS / MCT

A federal judge’s decision Tuesday declaring Harvard’s admissions process constitutional was lauded by local college officials, though the affirmative action case is likely to be appealed and could face a tougher test in the Supreme Court.

“I am glad the judge recognized the value of allowing colleges to create student bodies that are diverse in background, experience, and talent,” said Alison Byerly, president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. “That kind of diversity creates a more robust educational environment for all students.”

The high-profile case, watched by many as a critical test for affirmative action, was filed by Students for Fair Admissions, which alleged that Harvard’s process discriminated against Asian American students. The group has vowed to appeal the ruling. Judge Allison D. Burroughs upheld Harvard’s system, which considers race as one of many factors in admissions.

“For purposes of this case, at least for now, ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race-conscious admissions,” Burroughs wrote.

Students at Harvard, she continued, “will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences. It is this, at Harvard and elsewhere, that will move us, one day, to the point where we see that race is a fact, but not the defining fact and not the fact that tells us what is important, but we are not there yet.”

The trial, which took place in Boston last fall, put the spotlight on the admissions process at one of the nation’s most selective universities and revealed some closely guarded, yet long-sought secrets, such as Harvard’s preferred SAT score.

Many colleges for years have been considering race as a factor in admissions, in an attempt to admit increasingly diverse freshmen classes. And this week’s ruling means that they can continue to do so.

“I would say that it is encouraging that Judge Burroughs has affirmed the ability of universities to consider race, among many factors, when building our educational communities and the educational experience for all students,” said Dan Warner, vice provost for admissions and financial aid at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Princeton University, another of the nation’s Ivy League institutions, also praised the decision. The New Jersey university was one of many that filed an amicus brief in support of Harvard.

“Princeton University strives to enroll a diverse student body because doing so significantly deepens our community’s educational experience,” said Ben Chang, university spokesperson. “And we stand by the belief that individualized and holistic review of student applications is the best means that a university can employ in pursuit of meaningful diversity, with race and ethnicity as one factor among many in order to better understand each applicant and the contributions he or she might make to the university environment.”

Princeton has also faced challenges to its admissions process in the past. After two students claimed Princeton discriminated against Asian and Asian American students, one in 2006 and the other in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights conducted an investigation that spanned nine years and concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations.

The federal civil rights office found that Princeton considered many factors, including race and national origin, in the admissions process and also relied on other methods to ensure diversity in its class, in compliance with Supreme Court rulings.

The Harvard case could face more scrutiny from the Supreme Court if it agrees to hear the case.

“I will be very interested to see what, if anything, the Supreme Court has to add,” said Lehigh’s Warner.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a conference call Tuesday evening that she expected the decision to stand.

“This is airtight in terms of [the judge’s] factual findings,” she said.

The judge did caution that Harvard’s system is not perfect.

“The process would likely benefit from conducting implicit bias trainings for admissions officers, maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race in the admissions process, which were developed during this litigation,” she wrote, “and monitoring and making admissions officers aware of any significant race-related statistical disparities in the rating process.”