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Harvard: Statement on SCOTUS opposition brief

Harvard cites decades of legal precedent and recent court decisions to establish the Supreme Court should not again review college admissions policies considering race as one factor among many

Harvard today (5/17) filed a brief in the Supreme Court of the United States opposing a petition filed by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which asked the Court to reconsider nearly 40 years of legal precedent supporting the limited consideration of race as one factor among many in college admissions and to review two lower court decisions concluding that Harvard’s admissions process fully comports with applicable precedent. As Harvard’s brief explains, SFFA provides no good reason for the Court to revisit its precedent or the lower court decisions, especially given the petition’s disregard of the lower courts’ findings and distorted presentation of the relevant facts.

“After years of discovery, SFFA produced no persuasive evidence to support its legal claims. The court of appeals found no error in the district court’s meticulous explanation of how it resolved the disputed facts and applied the relevant law. SFFA is not entitled to battle out the facts a third time in this Court. And it identifies no unsettled legal issue meriting review.”


After a lengthy trial, including testimony from 30 witnesses, a federal district court completely rejected SFFA’s arguments that Harvard College discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The district court concluded that Harvard College’s admissions process comports with the Supreme Court’s precedents governing race-conscious college and university admissions policies and does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants. The First Circuit upheld those findings and conclusions as firmly grounded in the trial record and precedent.

SFFA filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking the Court’s review of these decisions. The brief filed today by Harvard responds to that SFFA petition. The Court is expected to decide next month whether to take the appeal.


The Admissions Process & Current Litigation

The Harvard brief summarizes the Harvard College admission process aimed at creating the diverse student body essential to its educational mission. The brief also reviews the current litigation, originally filed by SFFA, that claimed Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, engages in racial balancing, gives race too much weight, and eschews workable race-neutral alternatives. The district court rejected all of these claims, concluding:

“…Harvard has a compelling interest in pursuing the educational benefits of diversity, finding ‘[t]he evidence at trial …[makes] clear that a heterogeneous student body promotes a more robust academic environment with a greater depth and breadth of learning, encourages learning outside the classroom, and creates a richer sense of community.”

Further, the district court concluded that Harvard’s admissions process comports with Supreme Court precedents, and in that process, the consideration of race is narrowly tailored to achieve the educational benefits of diversity. A federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision.

No Reason for Review, No Discrimination.

The Harvard brief reviews the conclusion of the district court, affirmed by the appeals court, that Harvard College does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants, and further, that Harvard does not engage racial balancing, does not give race too much weight, and has no workable race-neutral alternatives available.

“SFFA attempts to portray Harvard’s process as an example of race-conscious admissions gone awry. But the narrative SFFA presents was rejected by the district court in detailed factual findings upheld by the court of appeals. This Court will not reverse such ‘concurrent findings’ of two lower courts absent ‘a very obvious and exceptional showing of error’… SFFA cannot come close to making that demanding showing.”

“Unable to seriously challenge the rejection of its claims under existing law, SFFA asks the Court to overrule more than forty years of decisions regarding the limited consideration of race in university admissions… SFFA falls far short of providing a ‘compelling’ reason…for the Court to repudiate that precedent…”

“Having failed to make the case that Harvard’s admissions practices contravene the Court’s precedents governing the use of race in admissions, SFFA asks the Court to overthrow them. But SFFA offers no legitimate justification for such an extraordinary step—particularly in a statutory case such as this. If Congress wanted to amend Title VI to prohibit private universities from considering race in admissions, it could do so, but it has not.”

SFFA Offers Recycled, Rejected Arguments

The Harvard brief notes repeatedly where SFFA, in its petition to the Court, offers recycled arguments that were completely rejected by the district court and the appeals court.

“Students for Fair Admissions’ (SFFA’s) petition recycles allegations both courts rejected and offers a thoroughly distorted presentation of the record.”

“SFFA tries to sidestep the lower courts’ findings by proffering its own version of the record… But SFFA’s unreliable portrayal of the facts fatally undermines its case for review.”

“SFFA’s petition is based on a misleading depiction of the proceedings below, rests on factual assertions the lower courts squarely rejected, and ignores the contrary findings.”

Importance of Diversity

The Harvard brief reinforces the importance of diversity at colleges and universities and the ability of these institutions to create student bodies diverse along many dimensions, including race. And, it quotes from prior Supreme Court decisions that have concluded the same. Harvard considers diverse campus communities essential to its mission to educate “citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.”

“For more than four decades, this Court has recognized that universities have a compelling interest in pursuing the educational benefits that flow from student bodies that are diverse along many dimensions, including race.“

“Diversity ‘promotes cross-racial understanding, helps to break down racial stereotypes,’ ‘enables students to better understand persons of different races,’ produces ‘livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting’ classroom discussion, ‘promotes learning outcomes,’ and ‘better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.’… It also provides substantial societal benefits, including ‘cultivat[ing] a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry,’ by making clear that ‘the path to leadership [is] open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.’” 

“…prohibiting consideration of race now would lead to substantial declines in diversity on many college campuses, with significant adverse effects on the educational experiences of all students.”

“Endorsing SFFA’s view at this moment in our Nation’s history—when the need to cultivate greater tolerance, acceptance and understanding is particularly acute—would be a tragic mistake.”