The US Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into Harvard University’s policy of giving family members of former students and donors preference in admissions decisions, documents showed Tuesday.
The probe into the prestigious university’s so-called “legacy admissions” policy, a practice used by many colleges across the United States, comes less than a month after a major Supreme Court decision banned the use of race in college application decisions.
That decision, in which Harvard was also one of the targets, prompted fresh debate over the fairness of admissions policies at America’s top universities, and the extent to which those policies contribute to inequities.
The probe by the Education Department’s civil rights wing is in response to a complaint filed by three organizations representing minority students.
They argue that due to Harvard’s historically white student body, legacy admissions pulling from alumni discriminate against minority applicants.
In their complaint, the groups argue that nearly 70 percent of Harvard applicants with family connections or links to donors are white.
“The boost that the predominately white applicants receive from Donor and Legacy Preferences is substantial,” the groups said in their complaint, adding that the recent Supreme Court decision increased the importance of “rooting out preferences that unjustifiably disadvantage applicants of colour.”
The groups posted a copy of the Education Department’s letter to Harvard stating that a civil rights inquiry had been opened.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, while not wanting to comment directly on the investigation, said President Joe Biden is generally opposed to legacy admissions.
Biden has made clear “that legacy admissions hold back our ability to build diverse student bodies,” Jean-Pierre said.
When reached for comment by AFP, Harvard did not address the Education Department probe directly, saying only that it was “in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies” following the Supreme Court’s decision on the use of race in admissions, known as affirmative action.
In that case, the court sided with an activist group, Students for Fair Admissions, that sued the oldest private and public institutions of higher education in the country — Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC) — over their admissions policies.
The group claimed that race-conscious admissions policies in effect discriminated against Asian Americans competing to enter the two schools.
Harvard and UNC, like a number of other competitive US schools, considered an applicant’s race or ethnicity as a factor to ensure a diverse student body and representation of minorities.
Such affirmative action policies arose from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, aiming to help address the legacy of discrimination against African Americans.