Jose Luis Magana/AP
WASHINGTON — A civil rights group is challenging legacy admissions at Harvard University, saying the practice discriminates against students of color by giving an unfair boost to children of mostly white alumni .
The practice of prioritizing the children of alumni has been increasingly pushed back following last week’s Supreme Court ruling ending affirmative action in higher education. The NAACP added its weight behind the effort Monday, calling on more than 1,500 colleges and universities to level the playing field for admissions, including ending legacy admissions.
The civil rights lawsuit was filed Monday by Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit, on behalf of black and Latino community groups in New England, alleging that Harvard’s admissions system violates the civil rights law.
“Why do we reward children for the privileges and advantages accrued by previous generations? said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, group executive director. “Your family’s last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit and should not affect the college admissions process.”
Opponents say the practice is no longer defensible without affirmative action providing a counterbalance. The court ruling says colleges must ignore applicants’ race, campaigners point out, but schools can still give alumni and donor children a boost.
The lawsuit, filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, relies on Harvard data that came to light amid the affirmative action case that landed in the Supreme Court. Records revealed that 70% of donor-related and legacy applicants at Harvard are white, and being a legacy student makes an applicant about six times more likely to be admitted.
He points to other colleges that have dropped the practice amid questions about its fairness, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University.
The complaint alleges that Harvard’s legacy preference has nothing to do with merit and takes away places from qualified students of color. He is asking the US Department of Education to declare the practice illegal and force Harvard to drop it as long as the university receives federal funding.
“A place awarded to a legacy or donor-related candidate is a place that becomes unavailable to a candidate who meets the admissions criteria solely on the basis of his or her own merit,” according to the complaint. If legacy and donor preferences were removed, he adds, “more students of color would be admitted to Harvard.”
Harvard said it would not comment on the complaint.
“Last week, the University reaffirmed its commitment to the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning and research depend on a community made up of people from many backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences,” said the university in a prepared statement. “As we said, in the weeks and months ahead, the University will determine how to preserve our core values, consistent with the Court’s new precedent.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Chica Project, African Community Economic Development of New England and the Greater Boston Latino Network.
Also on Monday, the NAACP launched a campaign to get universities across the country to promote campus diversity. The group called on 532 public colleges and universities and 1,134 private colleges and universities to end inherited preferences, eliminate “racially biased” entrance exams, hire diverse faculty, and support low-income and first-year students. generation with scholarships and mentoring, among other measures.
“We hope that our nation’s institutions will stand with us in embracing diversity no matter what,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. “No matter what, the NAACP will continue to advocate, advocate and mobilize to ensure that every Black American has access to the resources and opportunities they need to thrive.”
The effort joins another campaign urging alumni of 30 prestigious colleges to withhold donations until their schools end legacy admissions. This initiative, led by Ed Mobilizer, also targets Harvard and other Ivy League schools.
President Joe Biden suggested last week that universities should rethink the practice, saying legacy admissions “extends privilege instead of opportunity.”
Several Democrats in Congress have demanded an end to the policy in light of the court ruling, as well as Republicans, including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is vying for the GOP presidential nomination.
It’s unclear which schools are giving a legacy boost and how much it helps. In California, where state law requires schools to disclose the practice, the University of Southern California reported that 14% of students admitted last year had family ties to alumni or donors. Stanford reported a similar rate.
An Associated Press survey of the nation’s most selective colleges last year found that legacy students from the freshman class ranged from 4% to 23%. At four schools — Notre Dame, USC, Cornell and Dartmouth — alumni outnumbered black students.
Proponents of the policy say it creates a community of alumni and encourages donations. A 2022 study of an undisclosed college in the North East found that former students were more likely to donate, but at the expense of diversity – the vast majority were white.