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Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Affirmative Action Challenged at Harvard, UNC

(CN) - Race-based affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina unfairly limit admissions of white and Asian-American students and should be banned, a pair of federal complaints allege.

Students for Fair Admissions Inc., a nonprofit legal advocacy group made up of recently rejected applicants, prospective students and parents, filed the virtually identical federal complaints in Boston and Charlotte, N.C.

The group claims that while the universities assured the U.S. Supreme Court and various federal agencies that they would only take account of race "as one, nonpredominent factor" in admissions decisions, they have in fact allegedly engaged in "a systematic campaign of racial and ethnic discrimination against certain disfavored classes of applicants."

Both lawsuits allege the universities stepped outside the bounds set by the Supreme Court when it comes to race-based admissions.

"UNC Chapel Hill's racial preference for each underrepresented minority student (which equates to a penalty imposed upon white and Asian-American applicants) is so large that race becomes the 'defining feature of his or her application,'" the lawsuit filed in Charlotte contends (parentheses in original).

The complaint asserts that UNC Chapel Hill's admissions practices of accepting applicants with inferior academic records while turning away higher qualified applicants can only be explained by race.

"Only using race or ethnicity as a dominant factor in admissions decisions could, for example, account for the disparate treatment of high-achieving Asian-American and white applicants and underrepresented minority applicants with inferior academic credentials," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that the reason these high-performing students are turned away cannot be because they only have high grades and no other qualifications on their resume.

"High-achieving Asian-American and white applicants are as broadly diverse and eclectic in their abilities and interests as any other group seeking admission to UNC-Chapel Hill," the lawsuit states. "They compete in interscholastic sports, are members of the school band, work part-time jobs after school, travel, and engage in volunteer work just like everyone else."

It's not a lack of non-academic qualifications that are keeping these applicants from being accepted into UNC Chapel Hill, the lawsuit alleges. "It is UNC-Chapel Hill's dominant use of racial preferences to their detriment."

In its complaint against Harvard, Students for Fair Admissions says data and analysis strongly suggest that white, black and Hispanic applicants are given racial preferences over better qualified Asian-Americans who are applying to Harvard.

"Statistical evidence reveals that Harvard uses `holistic' admissions to disguise the fact that it holds Asian Americans to a far higher standard than other students and essentially forces them to compete against each other for admission," the lawsuit says.

It also alleges Harvard is engaging in "racial balancing," enrolling the "essentially the same percentage" of black, Hispanic, white and Asian-American students year after year, even though the application rates and qualifications for each racial group have undergone significant changes over time.

"Harvard's remarkably stable admissions and enrollment figures over time are the deliberate result of system wide intentional racial discrimination designed to achieve a predetermined racial balance of its student body," the lawsuit claims.

Edward Blum, the director of the Project on Fair Representation, said: "These two lawsuits are the first of what are expected to be several similar challenges to other competitive colleges that continue to unconstitutionally use racial preferences in admission decisions."

"The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill," Blum said, "has no need to continue to use racial and ethnic preferences and should end them now instead of facing years of expensive and polarizing litigation."

UNC officials have announced that they don't plan to change their admission policies.

"The university stands by its current undergraduate admissions policy and process," spokesman Rick White said in a statement. "Further, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights determined in 2012 that UNC-Chapel Hill's use of race in the admissions process is consistent with federal law."

The lawsuit asserts that the university does not need to continue its use of racial preferences because various race-neutral practices are effective in increasing diversity in the student body.

"UNC-Chapel Hill conducted its own study to determine whether granting automatic admission to North Carolina students in the top ten percent of their high school class would work about as well as racial preferences in achieving diversity," the lawsuit says. "The study showed that a percentage plan would in fact work better than racial preferences in achieving diversity in that such a plan would boost minority enrollment."

The lawsuit alleges that there is "no doubt that UNC Chapel Hill is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and federal civil rights laws. The only question is the proper judicial response. Given what is occurring at UNC-Chapel Hill and other schools, the proper response is the outright prohibition of racial preferences in university admissions-period."

The Project for Fair Representation represented Abigail Fisher, who sued the University of Texas over its admission policies. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that lower courts should have placed the burden on the university to justify its admissions policies.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, UNC Chapel Hill conducted a study to analyze the projected composition of its incoming class if it adopted an admissions plan similar to the one used by the University of Texas at Austin.

"Under Texas law," the lawsuit says, "all students in the top ten percent of their class at high schools in Texas that comply with certain standards are granted automatic admission to any public state college, including the University of Texas at Austin."

According to the complaint, UNC-Chapel Hill found from its own study that "eliminating racial preferences and replacing them with a top-ten-percent plan similar to the University of Texas at Austin's would increase the percentage of nonwhite and underrepresented students enrolling at UNC-Chapel Hill from 15 percent to 16 percent."

"In other words," the lawsuit says, "UNC-Chapel Hill determined that it could adopt a race-neutral admissions policy that increases both the racial diversity of the student body and the likely average GPA of the entering freshman class."

However, UNC Chapel Hill stated that it would not implement this admissions plan because it would yield "a significantly less satisfactory admissions system for UNC in most respects."

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