Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Harvard Aggressively Defends Affirmative Action

The university is facing its own charges of discrimination.

Harvard University waded into a Supreme Court battle over affirmative action in colleges and universities last week, with a full-throated defense of racial diversity. The university submitted an amicus curiae brief to the court, which is preparing to consider the case of Abigail Fisher for the second time. Fisher has charged that she was not admitted to the University of Texas at Austin because she is white.

“Not only does diversity powerfully transform a student’s educational experience, but the benefits also reach beyond the walls of our campus—they go to the heart of our democracy,” wrote lawyers representing Harvard. Forbidding institutions of higher education from considering race in deciding whom to admit “would represent a significant intrusion into the academic freedom of universities.” 

Abigail Fisher, the Texan involved in the University of Texas affirmative action case, and Edward Blum, who runs a group working to end affirmative action, walk outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 10, 2012.

Abigail Fisher walks outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 10, 2012.

Photographer: Susan Walsh/AP Photo

The Fisher case could force colleges and universities to stop considering race as a factor in admissions. A decision in Fisher's favor could affect not just public universities like UT-Austin, but any college that receives federal aid, including Harvard. The university is facing a separate lawsuit (PDF) alleging that it discriminated against Asian American applicants because of its policy of considering race in deciding whom to admit to the school.

“Universities should not be compelled to ignore that students of different races and ethnic backgrounds often grow up separated and apart from one another, not exposed to others’ experiences, perspectives, and values,” wrote lawyers for Harvard in the Fisher brief.

The crux of their argument is that race still matters in the outside world, so university officials should be able to consider it when they create the small world that is a college campus. 

Key to the university’s position is the idea that it needs to stick to a “holistic admissions process” that “aims to consider every dimension of the perspective each individual applicant might bring to campus, including the applicant’s race or ethnicity.” Taking race off the table, the lawyers said, would limit the university’s freedom to decide what is important in compiling its class of students. 

“Harvard’s concern is misplaced. No one is suggesting that all holistic admissions criteria at the University of Texas or elsewhere should be eliminated—only an applicant’s race and ethnicity,” said Edward Blum, who runs a legal defense group that helped propel Fisher’s case to the Supreme Court and is also behind the Asian discrimination suit against Harvard. 

Still, the university was adamant that it needs to look at the racial background of students who apply. “Harvard’s graduates cannot be blind either to the challenges facing our increasingly pluralistic country or to the unresolved racial divisions that stubbornly persist.”

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