College signs amicus brief supporting consideration of race in admissions

by Debora Hyemin Han | 9/20/18 2:45am

Dartmouth aligned itself with the Ivy League and nine other private universities in the growing legal battle between Students for Fair Admission and Harvard University, co-filing an amicus brief over the summer reaffirming the need to maintain considerations of race in admissions.

SFFA launched the federal lawsuit against Harvard in 2014, alleging that Harvard has an unconstitutional racial quota that caps its number of admitted Asian students, as well as a racial balancing policy that was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in previous litigation. Among the recourse for relief requested by the organization, in addition to Harvard-specific actions, is a declaratory judgment stating that any use of race or ethnicity in the educational setting violates the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The amicus brief, filed on July 30, reaffirms the need to consider race in order to construct a diverse student body. The brief argues that it would be an “intrusion” to mandate a specific method of selection or prohibit consideration of race in the admissions process because holistic evaluations of applicants, including consideration of race, allows the schools to asses “how each individual student can contribute to the diversity of the student body.” It also relies on legal precedents that affirm universities’ use of race in holistic admissions processes.

According to College spokesperson Diana Lawrence, Dartmouth decided to file the brief to support Harvard’s holistic admissions philosophy and the legal framework that allows race to be a factor in such a review. Dartmouth and the other institutions worked with an outside law firm, Jenner and Block, to draft and revise the brief — and Dartmouth’s decision to sign was made after consultation within Dartmouth’s “leadership team,” which includes College President Phil Hanlon, provost David Kotz ’86 and vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid Lee Coffin, according to Lawrence’s email statement.

In filing the brief, Dartmouth did not endorse or comment on Harvard’s internal admissions practices, Lawrence wrote in an email.

In 2016, Dartmouth was the recipient of a complaint lodged by the Asian-American Coalition for Education with the Departments of Justice and Education, stating that while the population of college-age Asian-Americans has grown in the past 20 years, their representation has either leveled off or declined at Dartmouth, Brown University and Yale University. There have been several legal complaints of alleged discrimination against Asian-American students in college admissions, dating back to 2006, when Asian-American students filed a complaint against Princeton University.

President of SFFA Edward Blum declined to comment on the implications of the institutions’ amicus brief, and wrote in an email that SFFA was “unsure for now” about whether it would directly expand the current lawsuit to the rest of the Ivy League and other private universities. However, Blum reaffirmed that SFFA wants to end the consideration of race in college admissions.

Asian-American Coalition for Education co-founder Swan Lee said that the SFFA case highlights the fact that no institutions are dealing with the gaps between racial groups that affirmative action was initially implemented to address. She added that she does not believe the Supreme Court justices ever wanted affirmative action to be permanent because it is actually against the constitutional principle of equal protection.

“What is bothersome is that no institutions or scholars are dealing with the status quo about these [academic achievement] gaps between racial groups,” Lee said. “They’re not adequately addressing those problems and trying to fix them. They’re not discussing how to gradually transition America from racist admissions to one that’s more fair and does not need to use racial identity.”

Julie Kalish, lecturer in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric who focuses on the Supreme Court and constitutional law, said that the legal argument for the case is sound. However, she said the case could also be used as a vehicle to get rid of all race-conscious affirmative action across the board. Blum’s involvement has politicized the discussion, Kalish added.

“I think that his involvement doesn’t change anything about the legal arguments, but there’s no question in my mind that his involvement affects the way people understand the case and affects the extent to which people are or are not willing to sympathize with and hear the arguments of [SFFA], which is a real shame,” Kalish said.

Regarding the College’s joint amicus brief, Kalish said she believes that institutions should be able to have control over the composition of their incoming class, and agrees with Dartmouth’s decision to sign the brief. She said that it is possible for Dartmouth and the other institutions to file the brief without making any commentary about Harvard’s specific practices. All the brief asks, she said, is to not get rid of the legal framework that allows for holistic admissions.

SFFA motioned for summary judgment over the summer, but the case is set to go to court next month. Lawrence wrote that Dartmouth will be “actively” monitoring the progress of the litigation and considering whether “strategic participation at any future juncture” would advance Dartmouth’s institutional goals.