2015 federal complaints against Harvard University's alleged discriminatory admission practices

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On May 15, 2015, a coalition of more than 60 Asian-American organizations filed federal complaints with the United States Department of Education and Department of Justice against Harvard University. The coalition asked for a civil rights investigation into what it described as Harvard's discriminatory admission practices against Asian-American applicants.[1][2][3] The complaints were dismissed in July 2015 because a lawsuit making similar allegations was filed by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in November 2014.

On October 1, 2019 the judge in the case rejected the plaintiffs' claims, ruling that Harvard's admissions practices meet constitutional requirements and do not discriminate against Asian-Americans. It is expected that the decision will be appealed and that the case will likely reach the United States Supreme Court.[4]


According to the complaints, multiple studies have indicated that Harvard has engaged in systematic and continuous discrimination against Asian Americans in its subjective “holistic” college admissions process. They say Asian-American applicants with near-perfect test scores, top-one-percent grade point averages, academic awards, and leadership positions are unjustifiably rejected by Harvard. The discriminatory practices Harvard is alleged to have used include racial stereotypes, racially differentiated standards, and de facto racial quotas.[5] The studies cited in the complaints include:[6]

  • Golden (2007) The discrimination against Asian Americans by Harvard and other elite universities was so severe that Golden dedicated a chapter, "The New Jews”, to comparing it to the discrimination suffered by Jewish Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote that "most elite universities have maintained a triple standard in college admissions, setting the bar highest for Asians, next for whites and lowest for blacks and Hispanics".[citation needed]
  • Espenshade & Radford (2009) Asian Americans have the lowest acceptance rate for each SAT test score bracket, needing to score on average 140 points higher than a white student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student, and 450 points higher than a black student.[7]
  • Unz (2012) The percentage of Asians at Harvard peaked at over 20% in 1993, then immediately declined and thereafter remained roughly constant at a level 3–5 percentage points lower, despite the fact that the Asian-American population has more than doubled since 1993. "The relative enrollment of Asians at Harvard was plummeting, dropping by over half during the last twenty years, with a range of similar declines also occurring at Yale, Cornell, and most other Ivy League universities."[citation needed]
  • Sander (2014) "No other racial or ethnic group at these three[specify] of the most selective Ivy League schools is as underrepresented relative to its application numbers as are Asian- Americans."[citation needed]

Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard[edit]

The Project on Fair Representation, whose director and sole member is activist Edward Blum, aims to end racial classifications in education, voting procedures, legislative redistricting, and employment. An offshoot of Blum's organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Harvard University on November 17, 2014. The coalition complaint by the Asian American organizations was filed in May 2015 and contained similar allegations to the SFFA lawsuit. For this reason, the coalition complaint was dismissed in July 2015.

Harvard filed a motion in court to halt the case until the Supreme Court clarified relevant law in Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) (known as Fisher I) for the second time. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Fisher again and subsequently issued its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016) (known as Fisher II) on June 23, 2016. The case resumed, and oral arguments were heard in Massachusetts federal district court in Boston in October 2018.[8]


Harvard denies engaging in discrimination and said its admissions philosophy complies with the law. The school said the percentage of Asian-American students admitted has grown from 17% to 21% in a decade while Asian-Americans represent around 6% of the U.S. population.[9]

Months after the case was filed, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law moved to intervene in the case on behalf of a coalition of students and alumni. Harvard opposed the motion to intervene. In 2015, the matter went up on appeal to the 1st Circuit, which agreed with the district court that amicus participation would provide the groups a sufficient opportunity to be heard. In 2017, this group of intervenors expanded to include Asian American students. This first group of intervenors filed an amicus brief with the federal district court in July 2018, presented argument during trial, and presented testimony from students and alumni regarding the value of racial diversity on campus.[10]

On July 30, 2018, twenty-one student and alumni groups added their names to an amicus brief[11][importance?] submitted in collaboration with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in support of Harvard's ability to use race-conscious admissions policies.[12]

See also[edit]


  2. ^ Harvard Admissions Discrimination: Coalition Accuses University Of Bias Against Asian-Americans.
  3. ^ Harvard faces bias complaint from Asian-American groups.
  4. ^ "Harvard Does Not Discriminate Against Asian-Americans in Admissions, Judge Rules". New York Times. October 1, 2019.
  5. ^ Investigate Harvard's Discrimination against Asian American Applicants Archived August 10, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ Complaint Against Harvard University and the President and Fellows of Harvard College for Discriminating Against Asian-American Applicants in the College Admission Process Archived June 7, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Espenshade, Thomas J.; Walton Radford, Alexandria (2009). No longer separate, not yet equal: race and class in elite college admission and campus life. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691141602.
  8. ^ "Question at center of Harvard trial: What counts as discrimination?". Boston Globe. October 21, 2018.
  9. ^ Is Harvard Showing Bias Against Asian-Americans?
  10. ^ Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Amicus Brief https://lawyerscommittee.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/SFFA-v-Harvard-Amicus-Brief.pdf
  11. ^ "NAACP LDF AMICI CURIAE BRIEF" (PDF). projects harvard /files/diverse-education/files/cdh_brief.pdf. July 30, 2018. Retrieved November 9, 2018.
  12. ^ "Standing with Harvard in admissions case". Harvard Gazette. July 31, 2018. Retrieved November 9, 2018.

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