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Federal Complaint Says Harvard Legacy Preferences in Admissions Violate Civil Rights Act

A federal complaint accused Harvard of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its legacy and donor preferences.
A federal complaint accused Harvard of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its legacy and donor preferences. By Julian J. Giordano
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Rahem D. Hamid, Crimson Staff Writers

Updated July 5, 2023, at 4:52 p.m.

Three Black and Latinx groups filed a civil rights complaint against Harvard Monday morning alleging that the University’s consideration of legacy and donor preferences in the admissions process violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The 31-page complaint, filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights before the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, states that Harvard’s consideration of legacy preferences “violates federal law.”

“In other words, Harvard admits predominantly white students using Donor and Legacy Preferences, and, as a direct result, excludes non-white applicants,” the complaint states.

As a recipient of federal funds, Harvard is required to follow the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination “on the basis of race, color, and national origin” in programs receiving federal financial assistance.

The filing comes just days after the Supreme Court ruled that admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by improperly considering race in the admissions process.

In a joint statement on Thursday responding to the Court's decision, Harvard's top brass wrote that the University "will continue to be a vibrant community whose members come from all walks of life, all over the world."

"We write today to reaffirm the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences," they wrote.

Lawyers for Civil Rights filed the complaint on behalf of the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and The Greater Boston Latino Network.

The complaint outlines six requests, asking the Department of Education to investigate Harvard’s admissions policies, declare that legacy preferences violate Title VI, and declare that Harvard must stop considering legacy and donor preferences if it wants to continue receiving federal funding.

In the complaint, the groups call for the department to ensure that applicants cannot indicate a relationship to a family member or donor at any point in the admissions process, and “grant all other relief that the Department finds appropriate and just.”

The complaint states that Harvard grants “special preference in its admission process to hundreds of mostly white students” because of “who their relatives are.”

“The students who receive these special preferences (“Donor and Legacy Preferences”) are significantly more likely to be accepted than other applicants, and constitute up to 15% of Harvard’s admitted students,” the complaint states.

Harvard spokesperson Nicole G. Rura declined to comment on the civil rights complaint.

Legacy admissions have long been scrutinized by federal and state officials — a bill banning legacy admissions was proposed in Congress last year, and another in Massachusetts earlier this year.

At oral arguments last October, justices asked if eliminating legacy preferences would be a race-neutral alternative to diversify Harvard’s student body. Shortly after their ruling last week, many — including Supreme Court justices and President Joe Biden — singled out legacy preferences as unfair.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 has previously defended the “slight tip” legacy status grants in the admissions process.

Elite schools have increasingly stopped consideration of legacy preferences in recent years. Johns Hopkins University, Amherst College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology all do not consider legacy in their admissions process.

At Amherst, the percentage of legacies in the enrolled incoming class fell from a yearly average of 11 percent to 6 percent this past year, the first without legacy preferences.

In June 2017, the Committee to Study Race-Neutral Alternatives — led by Fitzsimmons, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith — formed to consider alternatives to the College’s race-conscious admissions process, including the elimination of ALDC preferences: preferences for athletes, legacies, “Dean’s List” applicants, and children of faculty and staff.

The Committee’s report, released in 2018, found that race-neutral alternatives, including abandoning preferences for ALDCs — would not achieve diversity without “significant and unacceptable” sacrifice to “other institutional imperatives.”

In their complaint, the lawyers attacked Harvard’s assertion that legacy preferences are necessary to maintain good relationships with donors and alumni.

“To suggest that people will not apply to, affiliate themselves with, or donate to Harvard simply because it eliminated Donor and Legacy Preferences strains logic,” they wrote.

The filing specifically cites the impact that the Court’s recent decision will have on efforts to recruit a diverse student body.

“To improve, or at least preserve, diversity and equity in the admissions process going forward, Harvard should be barred from using a system that provides significant preferences to white applicants, i.e., Donor and Legacy Preferences, to the detriment of applicants of color,” the statement reads.

“While Harvard’s asserted justifications for using the Donor and Legacy Preferences do not constitute important educational goals, diversity, on the other hand, remains a compelling educational goal, and Harvard has consistently argued as such,” it reads.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at michelle.amponsah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at rahem.hamid@thecrimson.com.

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