The US Department of Education has begun a civil rights investigation into whether Harvard University discriminates in its admissions process by giving preferential treatment to children of wealthy donors and alumni, roughly three weeks after a lawsuit made those allegations.
That lawsuit, filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of three minority advocacy groups, alleged the students who receive that preferential treatment are “overwhelmingly White” and make up as much as 15% of Harvard’s admitted students. The plaintiffs called on the Department of Education to investigate Harvard’s use of donor and legacy preferences and “the resulting unjustified disparate impact.”
US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights will now probe whether Harvard “discriminates on the basis of race by using donor and legacy preferences in its undergraduate admissions process in violation of Title VI and its implementing regulations,” according to a Monday letter from Ramzi Ajami, a regional director for the office.
“Opening the complaint for investigation in no way implies that (the office for civil rights) has made a determination on the merits of the complaint,” the letter said. “During the investigation, (the office) is a neutral fact- finder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the Complainant, the University, and other sources.”
The lawsuit that triggered the civil rights investigation was filed just days after the Supreme Court’s June decision to gut affirmative action in college admissions, ruling schools can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis for accepting a candidate.
The lawsuit cited that ruling and quoted the Supreme Court’s majority: “College admissions are zero-sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter.”
Already, an array of prestigious schools have ended legacy admissions, including MIT, Amherst and Wesleyan University.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson on Tuesday applauded the Department of Education for “taking the necessary steps to ensure that our higher education system works for every American, not just a privileged few.”
“Legacy and donor admissions have long served to perpetuate an inherently racist college admissions process,” Johnson said in a statement. “Every talented and qualified student deserves an opportunity to attend the college of their choice. Affirmative Action existed to support that notion. Legacy admissions exist to undermine it.”
In a statement sent to CNN, Harvard spokesperson Nicole Rura said that after the Supreme Court decision, the university is “in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard’s longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.”
“Our review includes examination of a range of data and information, along with learnings from Harvard’s efforts over the past decade to strengthen our ability to attract and support a diverse intellectual community that is fundamental to our pursuit of academic excellence,” the statement said.
“As this work continues, and moving forward, Harvard remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and to redoubling our efforts to encourage students from many different backgrounds to apply for admission.”
Legacy admissions ‘unfair and unearned advantage,’ attorney says
Michael Kippins, a litigation fellow with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said in a virtual news conference Tuesday the alleged donor and legacy preferential treatment at Harvard is a “discriminatory practice. It is an unfair and unearned advantage for students or applicants who have applied with these preferences in mind.”
“With the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action that came down on June 29, Lawyers for Civil Rights has filed this federal civil rights complaint to level the playing field for applicants of color who overwhelmingly are not benefited by these preferences,” Kippins said.
Harvard has not directly reached out to Lawyers for Civil Rights, Kippins said.
He said the legal organization “applauds” the opening of the education department’s probe and said the group filed its lawsuit “precisely to obtain that result.”
The lawyer added it’s significant that the education department launched an investigation into the allegations so quickly. “It shows that the office for civil rights is taking this seriously,” Kippins said.