The case was first raised in 2014 by advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), on behalf of a coalition of students who claimed to have been rejected from Harvard because of their Asian ancestry—a violation of Title VI, the federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.
In February, three months after the First Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Harvard and upheld the university’s”race-conscious” admission practices, the SFFA filed a petition (pdf) to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking to reignite the seven-year-long legal battle.
“Harvard’s mistreatment of Asian-American applicants is appalling,” the SFFA’s court filing reads. “Harvard penalizes them because, according to its admissions office, they lack leadership and confidence and are less likable and kind. This is reason enough to grant review.”
“This case is the kind of important individual rights dispute that this Court has not hesitated to hear,” it added. “Review thus would be warranted if the defendant were any university subject to Title VI. But it isn’t just any university. It’s Harvard. Harvard has been at the center of the controversy over ethnic- and race-based admissions for nearly a century.”
In response, Harvard on May 17 filed to the Supreme Court a Brief in Opposition (pdf) to the SFFA’s request, arguing that the group failed to offer any valid reason to revisit the lower court ruling.
“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,” Harvard argued. “But SFFA offers no legitimate justification for such an extraordinary step.”
The university also accused the SFFA of trying to undermine its efforts to make its student population racially diverse, saying that a race-neutral admission policy would hurt the already underrepresented black and Hispanic students.
“If Harvard were to abandon race-conscious admissions, African-American and Hispanic representation would decline by nearly half,” the court filing read. “Such declines would seriously undermine Harvard’s educational goals, and even SFFA’s expert agreed such declines would be unacceptable.”
While it could be, as the SFFA suggested, a landmark case on college admission policies, Harvard law professor Noah R. Feldman told student newspaper the Harvard Crimson that the Supreme Court may not grant a review because Harvard is a private institution.
Feldman said, according to the Crimson, that he believes it’s “pretty unlikely” the Supreme Court will take the case. He told the newspaper that past Supreme Court cases involving race in admissions have involved public universities, and the constitutional issue in those cases is more clearly presented.