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SFFA Funded by Large Conservative Trusts, Public Filings Show

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Students For Fair Admissions, the anti-affirmative action group suing Harvard for its consideration of race in its admissions, is largely funded by conservative trusts, according to public filings since 2017.

Though Edward Blum, the legal strategist behind SFFA, told the New York Times the group had received more than 5,000 individual contributions, a handful of conservative foundations make up the bulk of its funding. These include DonorsTrust, the Searle Freedom Trust, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the 85 Fund.

SFFA, which first sued Harvard in 2014, alleges the College’s race-conscious admissions practices discriminate against Asian American applicants and violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January 2022, one year after SFFA’s appeal.

Harvard has denied the allegations, with University President Lawrence S. Bacow decrying the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case.

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In all, SFFA has spent less than $8 million on its affirmative action suits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, according to Blum. From 2015 to 2020 — the last year for which filings are available — SFFA received more than $8.5 million in contributions to fund their legal battles.

Public filings show conservative fund DonorsTrust contributed $2.5 million to SFFA from 2017 to 2019. Their largest contribution — a $1.5 million donation that was more than 50 percent of SFFA’s funding that year — came in 2018. The Searle Freedom Trust also contributed a significant chunk of SFFA’s overall donations, with $500,000 in contributions annually from 2017 to 2019.

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DonorsTrust spokesperson Carolyn Bolton confirmed in a statement that the fund donated $2.5 million to Students for Fair Admissions from 2017 to 2019, though they granted a total of $416 million to charitable organizations over that time period.

“The sum granted out to Students for Fair Admissions during that three-year time frame reflects our commitment to honoring donor intent and helping our givers support charities that align with their diverse interests,” Bolton wrote in a statement. “DonorsTrust is not involved in how Students for Fair Admissions operates or how it achieves its organizational mission.”

The Crimson reported in 2019 that the Searle Freedom Trust and Donors Trust together contributed $750,000 to SFFA in 2016, constituting nearly three-quarters of the group’s total donations.

The Sarah Scaife Foundation, set up by the Scaife family and previously controlled by late conservative activist and philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, contributed $650,000 to SFFA from 2017 to 2019, according to the foundation’s tax disclosures. The foundation has a long history of donating to conservative causes and think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation.

SFFA also received a $250,000 donation in 2020 from The 85 Fund, a trust connected to conservative lawyer and Donald Trump ally Leonardo Leo.

James S. Murphy, a senior policy analyst at think tank Education Reform Now, said much of Blum’s success in bringing his battles to the Supreme Court would not be possible if not for wealthy donors.

“None of this happens if [Blum’s] not raising millions of dollars,” Murphy said. “The only way that [SFFA] can afford this case is through these organizations that funnel money from very wealthy individuals to causes like his.”

Other smaller donors to SFFA include Asian American political advocacy group 80-20 Initiative. According to S.B. Woo, the group’s president, 80-20 has donated a total of $50,000 to SFFA from 2019 to 2022.

“Since our mission is to secure equal opportunity, we feel very strongly that Asian American students have been discriminated by Harvard’s admissions policy,” Woo said in an interview.

The Xie Foundation, which makes grants on behalf of Fortinet co-founders Ken and Michael Xie, contributed $10,000 in 2019.

A small amount of annual revenue for SFFA comes from their one-time membership fee, which amounted to a total of just $23,660 from 2015 to 2019. SFFA has stated that it has more than 20,000 members.

Prior to founding SFFA, Blum created the Project on Fair Representation, which also aims to challenge race-conscious policies. PFR received around $1 million in contributions and paid out $2.5 million in legal expenses from 2015 to 2020, according to public filings.

Since 2016, Blum has annually compensated himself $48,000 for his work with SFFA and an additional $120,000 for his work on the Project on Fair Representation.

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments for the case on Oct. 31.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at nia.orakwue@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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