Campus & Community

Harvard Files Amicus Brief On the Consideration of Race in Admissions Decisions

4 min read

Harvard University, together with Yale University, Princeton University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and Duke University, has filed an amicus brief in the Michigan cases pending before the United States Supreme Court.

The brief supports the right of institutions of higher education to consider race as one factor in a careful and individualized admissions system.

Harvard’s President Lawrence H. Summers said: “This case is enormously important for higher education and for our nation. Our brief argues that bringing together students from different backgrounds, including different racial backgrounds, has vital educational benefits for all students and better prepares them to serve as leaders in a multiracial society. It affirms that these benefits are best realized when universities may fashion competitive admissions programs that carefully consider each applicant as a whole individual, not just as a product of grades or test scores. It disputes the assertion that such benefits can be effectively achieved through the outside imposition of other, blunter methods that purport to take no account whatever of a student’s ethnicity or race. We hope the Supreme Court, as it did 25 years ago in Bakke, will preserve universities’ flexibility to maintain carefully tailored admissions programs that do not turn a blind eye to the powerful educational value of student diversity.”

The brief emphasizes the consensus now widely expressed in our nation and in higher education that racial diversity in education is of compelling importance. It points out that this consensus, shared by the government, flows from features unique and fundamental to higher education.

These features include the fact that a racially diverse class improves the educational process by exposing students, both in the classroom and through their informal interactions, to a broad range of experiences and viewpoints; that our institutions have a distinctive role in training the next generation of leaders, and by composing a broadly diverse class we help ensure that our graduates are well prepared for an increasingly multi-cultural society; and also, that our admissions policies meet the needs of society as a whole by ensuring that the next generation of leaders are themselves drawn from a diverse and talented pool.

The brief further points out that while the government and others have suggested various race neutral alternatives to achieving the paramount government objective of keeping public institutions open and available to all segments of American society, these alternatives are fundamentally flawed. For example, the government asserts that institutions could achieve a diverse class by admitting the top ten percent of high school graduates. This approach is meaningless to highly-selective national universities. Harvard College, for example, receives more applications from high school valedictorians than it has spaces in its freshman class. Moreover, the concept has no applicability for graduate schools, given their smaller class size and the fact that they too draw from colleges around the country and world.

The proposed alternatives are mechanistic and depart from the individualized, merit-based review that Harvard employs in all of its admissions processes. The constitution cannot mean that universities must sacrifice individualized review in favor of formulistic approaches. Also, although racially neutral on their face, these alternatives are being offered specifically because of their purported ability to achieve racial diversity. The brief argues that it is far better, and far more consistent with constitutional norms, for institutions to consider race directly, forthrightly, and as part of an individualized review designed to compose the best possible class for all our students.

The consideration of race as a factor in admissions is a long-standing and well-established practice across higher education. The Supreme Court should recognize the distinctive competence of educational institutions to select their own student bodies and to ensure that their educational missions are being served. It would be wrenching, for society and higher education, for the Court to reverse the rules in laid down in Bakke and to intrude on the academic judgments made by Harvard and other universities.