Updated June 29, 2023, at 4:13 p.m.
The Supreme Court severely curtailed affirmative action in higher education admissions, declaring Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy unconstitutional in a ruling against the school Thursday.
The 6-2 decision — widely expected by legal scholars due to the Court’s strong conservative majority — marks a major setback for Harvard, which has faced scrutiny for its admissions practices since anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions first filed suit in 2014.
The suit alleged the College’s admissions processes discriminate against Asian Americans in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans institutions that receive federal funds from discriminating “on the grounds of race, color, or national origin.”
The Supreme Court also ruled against the University of North Carolina and its admissions policies in a 6-3 decision. Justices heard the suits, both brought by Students for Fair Admissions, on the same day last October.
During oral arguments, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority appeared ready to strike down affirmative action. Lawyers representing Harvard faced sharp questions about the educational value of racial diversity, legacy admissions, and the “personal rating” metric, which evaluates applicants’ character traits.
In the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts ’76, the Court ruled that Harvard’s and UNC’s admission policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and ruled that the highest standard of judicial review — strict scrutiny — must be applied.
“University programs must comply with strict scrutiny, they may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and — at some point — they must end,” the opinion stated. “Respondents’ admissions systems — however well intentioned and implemented in good faith — fail each of these criteria.”
The court held, however, that universities may still consider how an applicant’s race has shaped their personal identity.
“At the same time, as all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” the majority opinion states.
“But, despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” the opinion continued.
In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor wrote that the Court’s ruling “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.”
“The Court subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society,” she added.
Harvard has long denied that its race-conscious admissions program discriminates against Asian Americans, who consistently rated lower than other groups in personal ratings, according to data filed in federal court in Boston.
In a statement Thursday signed by top University administrators, including President Lawrence S. Bacow and President-elect Claudine Gay, Harvard affirmed its commitment to diversity while committing to abide by the ruling.
“In the weeks and months ahead, drawing on the talent and expertise of our Harvard community, we will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values,” they wrote.
The ruling overturns two lower court rulings in Harvard’s favor. The Massachusetts District Court ruled in support of Harvard in 2019, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court in 2020. In early 2021, SFFA petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, and the Court agreed to hear the case a year later.
The Supreme Court’s decision is a victory decades in the making for SFFA President Edward J. Blum, who has orchestrated more than two dozen lawsuits challenging racial preference laws.
The Court first ruled in favor of race-conscious admissions in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. Until Thursday's ruling, the Court had narrowly upheld affirmative action through challenges in 2003, 2013, and 2016.
The Harvard and UNC rulings have far-reaching implications for universities across the country, whose current admissions policies will likely need to be adjusted.
The Crimson will break down what this ruling means for the admissions process, undergraduates, and higher education in a special print edition Friday, which will also be published online.
This story will be updated.
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