News that a federal complaint says Harvard’s legacy preferences in admissions violate civil rights laws

Updated on July 3, 2023 at 5:26 pm

Three black and Latino groups filed a civil rights complaint against Harvard on Monday morning, alleging the university’s legacy and donor preferences in the admissions process violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A 31-page complaint filed by civil rights attorneys before the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights says Harvard’s consideration of traditional electives “violates federal law.”

“In other words, Harvard admits mostly white students using donor and legacy options and, as a direct result, excludes non-white applicants,” the complaint states.

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

The filing comes 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 and improperly considered race in the admissions process.

In a joint statement responding to the court’s ruling on Thursday, Harvard’s top officials wrote that the university “will continue to be a vibrant community with members from all over the world.”

“We write today to reaffirm the fundamental principle that profound and transformative teaching, learning and research depend on a community of multiple backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences,” they wrote.

Civil rights attorneys filed the complaint on behalf of the CHICA Project, African Socioeconomic Development of New England and The Greater Boston Latino Network.

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

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In the complaint, the groups call for “the Department to provide all appropriate and reasonable relief” to ensure that applicants cannot refer to a relationship with a family member or donor at any point in the admissions process.

The complaint alleges that Harvard gives “special preference in its admissions process to hundreds of mostly white students” because of “who their relatives are.”

“Students who receive these special preferences (“donor and legacy preferences”) are more likely to be accepted than other applicants, and comprise up to 15% of Harvard’s admitted students,” the complaint states.

Harvard spokeswoman Nicole G. Roura did not respond to a request for comment on the civil rights complaint.

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

At oral arguments last October, the justices asked whether eliminating legacy options would be a race-neutral alternative to diversifying Harvard’s student body. After their ruling last week, several Supreme Court justices and President Joe Biden — including President Joe Biden — called legacy options unfair.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 previously advocated “small tip” legacy level grants in the admissions process.

Elite schools have stopped considering legacy options in recent years. Johns Hopkins University, Amherst College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology all do not consider heritage in their admissions process.

At Amherst, the percentage of legacies in the enrolled incoming class dropped to 6 percent from last year’s annual average of 11 percent, marking the first time that legacies have not been electives.

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In June 2017, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Fitzsimmons and then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Chaired by Smith, the Committee to Study Race-Neutral Alternatives was formed to consider alternatives to the college’s racial sensibility. Admission process including elimination of ALDC preferences: preferences for athletes, traditions, “Dean’s List” applicants, and children of faculty and staff.

The group’s report, released in 2018, found that diversity could not be achieved without “significant and unacceptable” sacrifices to “other institutional imperatives” — including race-neutral alternatives — including abandoning options for ALDCs.

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

“People don’t apply to, commit to, or donate to Harvard because donor and legacy preferences eliminate logic,” they wrote.

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

“To promote, or at least preserve, diversity and equity in the admissions process going forward, Harvard must stop using a system that gives significant preferences to white applicants, such as donor and legacy options, to the detriment of applicants of color,” the report says.

“Harvard’s affirmative justifications for using donor and legacy preferences lack important academic goals; on the other hand, diversity is a compelling academic goal, and one that Harvard has consistently advocated,” it says.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Raheem D. Hamid can be reached at [email protected].

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