On October 1, 2019, a U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Massachusetts ruled in favor of Harvard University in a closely watched case examining whether the college’s admissions process, which takes candidates’ race and economic circumstances into account, results in race-based animus against Asian-Americans. The suit, filed by an anti-affirmative action advocacy group, Students for Fair Admissions (SFA), accused Harvard of overemphasizing race in the admissions process, or “race balancing,” resulting in a higher bar for academically talented Asian-American applicants. Harvard defended the policy during an intense, three-week long trial, with its President explaining that a whole-person approach to admissions “reaffirm[s] the importance of diversity” and the College’s admissions leadership explaining that race-conscious admissions help to transform student demographics at the nation’s most elite college. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs found “no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice against Asian Americans,” and, although the admissions program was “not perfect,” she concluded that “ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race-conscious admissions.” The SFA promises to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.
Although the decision contemplates the use of race in college admissions and not specifically in the employment context, it nonetheless has significant ramifications for employers that similarly consider candidate diversity in the hiring and promotion process in hopes of reversing historic under-representation of minority groups. Although Title VII and state laws prohibit employers from discriminating between candidates based solely on race, the Harvard admissions decision lends support to the continued consideration of race as part of a holistic review of a candidate’s qualifications and an employer’s strategic approach to diversifying the workplace.