The Justice Department offered a public show of support in court Thursday to a group suing Harvard for what it says is discrimination against Asian-American applicants to the elite university.
A filing in the ongoing Massachusetts case is the Trump administration's most significant entry into the debate over affirmative action and sets up a fight on the diversity policy that could have wide implications for higher education.
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"The record evidence demonstrates that Harvard's race-based admissions process significantly disadvantages Asian-American applicants compared to applicants of other racial groups -- including both white applicants and applicants from other racial minority groups," the Justice Department said in court papers Thursday.
"The evidence, moreover, shows that Harvard provides no meaningful criteria to cabin its use of race; uses a vague 'personal rating' that harms Asian-American applicants' chances for admission and may be infected with racial bias; engages in unlawful racial balancing; and has never seriously considered race-neutral alternatives in its more than 45 years of using race to make admissions decisions."
Harvard has rejected the assertion that it sets caps on the number of Asian-American students, and admissions officials say they consider all aspects of applicants' backgrounds and their ability to contribute to the academic setting.
In a statement, Harvard said it was "deeply disappointed" with the Justice Department for siding with the group that is "recycling the same misleading and hollow arguments."
"Harvard does not discriminate against applicants from any group, and will continue to vigorously defend the legal right of every college and university to consider race as one factor among many in college admissions, which the Supreme Court has consistently upheld for more than 40 years," the university said.
The case is set to go to trial in Boston in October.
Looking ahead to Supreme Court
The Justice Department has for months signaled it may side with the group, Students for Fair Admissions, which was created by Edward Blum, a conservative advocate who has long fought affirmative action that gives blacks and Hispanics a boost. Justice Department officials are also conducting their own investigation into the Harvard admissions policy born from a similar complaint filed by a coalition of Asian-American associations.
In the filing, known as a statement of interest, the Justice Department alleges Harvard has failed to prove that it does not unlawfully discriminate against Asian-Americans, and asks the court to rule against the university's request to close the case before trial.
Both sides have an eye toward the Supreme Court, which first allowed for racial affirmative action in a landmark 1978 case. The court last year upheld the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas in a tight, and closely-watched ruling.
Announcing the filing, Justice Department officials said the government has a legal interest in the case because Harvard accepts millions of dollars each year in federal funding.
"No American should be denied admission to school because of their race. As a recipient of taxpayer dollars, Harvard has a responsibility to conduct its admissions policy without racial discrimination by using meaningful admissions criteria that meet lawful requirements," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.
The support from the Trump administration in the case came on the same day that a group of over 500 social scientists and scholars aligned itself with Harvard in an amicus brief, writing that Students for Fair Admissions is relying on "unreliable and isolated measures of merit" and "the myth of an Asian penalty" in admissions.