Attack resumes on racial diversity in higher ed

Group appealing decision on Harvard’s holistic admissions

ON WEDNESDAY, the First Circuit Court of Appeals will begin hearing arguments in Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard College. This case against Harvard’s use of holistic admissions – including race as one of many factors considered – is a poorly-cloaked attack on racial diversity in higher education.

Here’s what you need to know.

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) has appealed a lower court ruling that upheld Harvard’s holistic admissions and affirmative action process. The lower court found that Harvard did not discriminate against Asian Americans, and that race-neutral alternatives to achieving diversity on college campuses were insufficient to achieving that goal. Unsatisfied, Students for Fair Admissions is pushing the case further, in the name of “fairness.”

To be clear, the Students for Fair Admissions case against Harvard is actually a proxy to dismantle the use of affirmative action in college admissions across the country.

SFFA is not some grassroots network of self-organized students with racial grievances, as the name might imply. It’s an organization led by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has been involved in multiple lawsuits contesting the consideration of race in college admissions and in voting rights. Blum works to bring those who claim that they were unfairly treated by race-conscious practices together with conservative donors and lawyers who will support their cause.

The goal of Blum and SFFA is to strike down the use of race as a factor in college admissions by challenging long-standing practices that already have been affirmed by the Supreme Court at least four times in the past 20 years.

The Harvard case is one of three active cases, along with lawsuits against the University of North Carolina, and University of Texas, all led by Blum and SFFA. These cases attempt to subvert colleges’ and universities’ attempts to assure diversity as a necessary part of the experience of a well-educated individual in pluralistic nation.

The cases serve as Trojan horses that, if successful, will further dilute institutional diversity and diminish access to higher education among underserved populations: first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students facing systemic racial discrimination, including people who identify as Asian-American, Black, Latino, and Native American.

Harvard’s use of race-conscious admissions has garnered the support of dozens of stakeholder groups and is firmly grounded in the university’s recent history.

For this appeal, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed an amicus brief on behalf of 26 Harvard cross-racial student and alumni groups, including the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, siding with Harvard. The brief both defends affirmative action practices as a means of mitigating the racial disparities that have affected the nation’s K-12 education systems – and hence Harvard’s applicant pool – and demonstrates the long-term positive effects of campus diversity.

 As far back as 1936, Harvard has operated on the premise that the applicant pool and subsequent class could be shaped to the benefit of individual institutions and, for those schools with particular prominence, for the benefit of the nation.

By 1972, Harvard’s dean of admission, Chase Peterson, made clear what has grounded Harvard’s admission policy to this day: “A variety of strengths promising successful college at Harvard [are] sought — tenacity, perseverance, the record of having learned something to the point of competence, social generosity, intellectual openness, … strength and generosity of character, these all become means of separating the best from the average.” Peterson ends with a key phrase: “once it had been established that each of the contenders had the capacity to do the basic work …”

This emphasis on “variety” in the student body has continued at Harvard through the decades. Classes of Harvard students are selected from among those meeting that basic threshold for entry, with the goal of admitting and enrolling a diverse group of individuals who, together, represent a variety of excellences, perspectives, geographic locations, races, and ethnicities to assure a vibrant, enriching college experience for all.

To assure an applicant pool representative of a range of diversities, the admissions function at Harvard is complemented by a robust national recruitment operation focusing on students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students, athletes, high academic achievers, and those from under-represented racial and ethnic groups. Achieving diversity in tandem with excellence has required sustained, decades-long efforts that operate in the context of our nation’s challenges regarding race. These are the efforts under attack by Students for Fair Admissions.

The holistic approach to reviewing applications and admitting students has resulted in a diverse Harvard student body representing a range of thought as well as identity. While even more work is needed both to increase the representation of Black and Latino students and to increase socioeconomic diversity, there is no question that the mix of students present at Harvard College today adds value to the undergraduate experience and enhances the quality of both classroom and residential life.

Holistic admissions at Harvard reflect broad consensus favoring campus diversity and strong evidence of the benefits of campus diversity.

A recent study by John Carey, Catherine Clayton, and Yusaku Horiuchi (2019) found broad consensus for campus diversity among undergraduates. Studies by Hu and Kuh (2003), and Umbach and Kuh (2006) found a variety of benefits to participation in life on a pluralistic campus, including greater openness and mutual understanding, commitment to civic engagement, and other learning outcomes including higher levels of academic challenge, more opportunities for active and collaborative learning, and higher satisfaction with the college experience. Diversity has a clear benefit in the education sector, in the business world, and surely to our democratic society more broadly.

All students, including white students, benefit from race-conscious admissions through learning and living together with those whose lives and backgrounds are different from their own. Furthermore, the benefits of knowing and understanding people across lines of difference while in college extends into the professional lives of individuals according to Margaret M. Chin (2020).

The longstanding careful, tested, holistic admissions process used by Harvard—and many institutions of higher education—is achieving its aims: producing, over the years, leaders and scholars whose work in science, the law, in letters, in politics, in technology—in every sector—has enriched their fields and enhanced the quality of our common life.

A common tactic SFFA uses is stoking division among different racial groups, pitting one group of students against another. But the facts don’t support the claim that affirmative action harms some students to the benefit of others.

In the case of Harvard, recent studies show that Asian-American students are not harmed by attending their second choice school (Nguyen et al 2020).

Another study showed that ending racial preferences in California did little to benefit whites and Asian Americans while harming black and Latino students (Bleemer 2020).

And while Edward Blum and SFFA are leading the charge against affirmative action at Harvard and around the country, they’re not alone.

The Trump administration’s Department of Justice recently filed a letter asserting that Yale discriminates against Asian-American and white applicants.

On the heels of a close vote that just barely upheld the ban on affirmative action in Washington, reactionary groups – backed by SFFA – are working to persuade Californians in the upcoming November election to reject a ballot measure that would reinstate affirmative action programs in public education, hiring, and contracting.


These concurrent efforts conspire to dismantle decades of productive work and social progress.

This summer of protests for racial justice and six months of the COVID-19 pandemic have thrown into harsh relief the inequalities that are deep, persistent, and systemic in this country.

This decision before the court will have significant impact. It will either allow progress toward racial inclusion, or it will reverse the work toward diversity on college campuses and, thereby, exacerbate racial inequality in higher education.

We need to do all we can to maintain and reinstate educational programs, including the practice of affirmative action, that provide opportunity for black, Latino, and other underrepresented groups. And not only at private colleges like Harvard.

Most students attend public colleges and universities. Yet, too few of these public institutions reflect the racial diversity of their states. A recent report from The Education Trust, “Segregation Forever?” found that selective-admission public colleges enroll fewer black students today than they did 20 years ago and are not keeping pace with Latinx population growth.

Meet the Author

Margaret M. Chin

Professor, City University of New York, Hunter College
Meet the Author
Meet the Author

John B. King Jr.

President and CEO, Education Trust
We can’t afford to backslide any further on matters of race in this country. Instead, we each must do our part to help bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Part of that work is protecting affirmative action in college admissions.

Margaret Chin is a professor of sociology at City University of New York, Jennifer Davis Carey is executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative, and John King Jr., who served as US secretary of education from 2016 to 2017, is president and CEO of the Education Trust. All of them are Harvard or Radcliffe college graduates.