How the Harvard University’s Admissions Trial Could Make Its Way to the Supreme Court





In 2014, the Students for Fair Admission group filed a lawsuit against Harvard University that alleged Harvard’s admissions process was discriminatory. This lawsuit began a three-week trial in United States District Court before Judge Allison D. Burroughs on October 15, 2018. The Students for Fair Admissions group is a nonprofit led by Edward Blum, a legal strategist. The group began this action by representing a first-generation Asian-American who applied to Harvard for the Class of 2014, but was not admitted. The group alleges that the Harvard admissions committee practices racial discrimination against Asian-American applicants, and that Harvard’s overall admission process does not analyze applicants equally. Harvard has continuously denied these allegations and emphasizes that race is only one of many factors considered when examining an applicant’s file. The ruling of this case could generate implications for other colleges throughout the United States that consider race in the admissions process.

Students for Fair Admissions Argument

The lawsuit accuses Harvard of imposing tougher standards for Asian-American applicants by using a discriminatory “personal rating” category that includes recommendations by professors, personal essays, and interviews. The Students for Fair Admissions also argue that Harvard practices “racial balancing,” in their practice of accepting a certain mixture of races. The group’s allegations rely on a study performed by Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economist. The study indicated that even though Asian-Americans uphold strong academic records and higher SAT scores that surpassed white applicants, they are admitted at a lower rate when compared to wealthy and well-connected applicants, such as the children of the University’s alumni and donors, and recruited athletes. The Students for Fair Admissions note that these prioritized applicants are also likely to be found on the dean’s list before admittance. The group is ultimately fighting for a Harvard admissions process that does not consider a student’s race, as well as the opportunity for the court to take a closer look at overturning affirmative action in higher education.

Harvard University’s Argument

Harvard leaders argue that race is considered only narrowly, and that Harvard’s share of Asian-Americans has grown yearly, reaching 23 percent of the current freshman class. Harvard also argues that it would be unable to achieve a population of diverse students without considering race within its admissions process. Harvard upholds that the statistical analysis presented by the Students for Fair Admissions is “deeply flawed” and generates a “misleading narrative” about the Harvard admissions process. The numerical ratings that applicants receive in the admissions process are based on various factors, including academics, extracurricular activities, athletics, and personality. This is only one part of a long process of checks and balances to admit a diverse class. Harvard argues that it looks at applicants as a whole, rather than only based on one criteria, such as personality, and that such a complex set of criteria does not discriminate against any applicants. Recently, one of Harvard’s attorneys, William F. Lee, told reporters that the admission of some donor’s children, or donor’s relatives on the dean’s list does not have any effect on Asian Americans and how they are evaluated for admission. Ultimately, Harvard maintains that it would be unable to achieve the highest levels of academia and diversity among students without weighing students’ race because the campus would become less diverse, or less academically excellent.

Going Forward

The Students for Fair Admissions do not intend to call any of the plaintiffs to the stand to share their grievances because they argue that the students have a right to remain anonymous for fear of harassment. As the trial progresses, various witnesses are expected to testify such the University’s dean, Rakesh Khurana, and Gilpin Faust, who recently stepped down as President of Harvard University. In the final week of the trial, current and former Harvard students are also likely to testify in support of the college’s affirmative action program.


This case challenges whether colleges across the United States can consider the race of applicants. In the past, such considerations have been upheld. For example, in the case Fisher v. University of Texas, the United States Supreme Court upheld The University of Texas at Austin’s program that allowed the consideration of race as a factor in their admissions process. The Supreme Court followed precedent and held that the benefits of diversity were a compelling interest and justified the use of race as one of many factors considered when admitting students. However, the Supreme Court has also held that when it comes to race, “negative action,” such as racial quotas, is illegal. As the trial moves forward, it is likely that depending on Judge Burroughs’ ruling, the losing side could appeal, and this controversial case could make its way to the Supreme Court. If so, this trial brought against affirmative action in higher education will be only the beginning of a long and historical journey. Will the court follow precedent, or create a new standard?


Adam Harris, The Harvard Trial Doesn’t Matter, The Atlantic (Oct. 18, 2018).

Alia Wong & Isabel Fattal, The Complicated History of Affirmative Action: A Primer, The Atlantic (Aug. 2, 2017).

Collin Binkley, Harvard Emails Illuminate Power of Wealth in Admissions, Associated Press (Oct. 17, 2018).

Delano R. Franklin & Samuel W. Zwickel, In Admissions, Harvard Favors Those Who Fund It, Internal Emails Show, The Harvard Crimson (Oct. 17, 2018).

Nate Raymond, Harvard Admissions Bias Case Can Proceed to Trial: U.S. Judge, Reuters (Sept. 28, 2018, 3:44 PM).

Patricia Hurtado & Janelle Lawrence, The Harvard Trial: What We Learned This Week and What’s Ahead, Bloomberg (Oct. 20, 2018, 12:33PM).