US groups file complaint challenging Harvard ‘legacy admissions’

Civil rights groups say Ivy League university’s policy of considering family ties to donors, alumni is ‘discriminatory’.

Harvard University seen from the river
'Qualified and highly deserving applicants of color are harmed' by Harvard University's 'legacy admissions' policy, US civil rights groups allege in a complaint filed on July 3, 2023 [File: Charles Krupa/AP Photo]

A number of civil rights groups in the United States have filed a complaint against “legacy admissions” at Harvard University, challenging the top academic institution’s practice of considering family ties to donors or alumni when mulling student applications.

In a federal civil rights complaint filed on Monday, the Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) non-profit called legacy admissions “discriminatory” because they give “a leg-up” to predominantly white applicants tied to wealthy donors and alumni.

The organisation said it filed the complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of racial justice groups the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England and the Greater Boston Latino Network.

“For the Class of 2019, about 28 percent of the class were legacies with a parent or other relative who went to Harvard,” LCR said in a statement.

“Qualified and highly deserving applicants of color are harmed as a result, as admissions slots are given instead to the overwhelmingly white applicants who benefit from Harvard’s legacy and donor preferences.”

Legacy admissions, which racial justice advocates have long criticised as a form of entrenched privilege at top universities, have come under renewed scrutiny following a US Supreme Court decision last week to ban colleges from considering race in admissions decisions.

The top court’s ruling dealt a major setback to “affirmative action” efforts aimed at boosting the enrolment of Black and Latino students.

The decision was welcomed by critics of affirmative action, who have argued it works against white and some minority students – namely Asian Americans – who also may come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But the ruling also was widely criticised, including by US President Joe Biden, who said it would “expand privilege instead of opportunity”.

Monday’s complaint references the conservative-majority Supreme Court’s decision, stating the ruling has made it “even more imperative now to eliminate policies that systematically disadvantage students of color”.

The complaint alleges that Harvard’s admissions system violates the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on factors such as race, religion and national origin.

It also states that about 70 percent of Harvard’s donor-related and legacy applicants are white and legacy students are about six times more likely to be admitted.

“Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations?” Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said in the statement.

“Your family’s last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit, and should have no bearing on the college admissions process.”

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press