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Lawsuit Uses SCOTUS Affirmative Action Ruling to Go After Legacy Admissions

“Harvard’s practice of giving a leg-up to the children of wealthy donors and alumni…must end,” said one advocate.

A Harvard student holds a sign during a rally protesting the Supreme Courts ruling against affirmative action on July 1, 2023, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A Boston nonprofit, Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), filed a lawsuit on behalf of multiple Black and Latinx community groups on Monday, alleging that legacy admissions at Harvard University violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The parties being represented in the lawsuit — the Chica Project, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network — have requested that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights open an investigation into the disparate impact of Harvard’s use of donor and legacy preferences. They have also called for officials to declare such admissions a violation of Title VI and to order Harvard to end the practice.

“Why are we rewarding children for privileges and advantages accrued by prior generations?” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, LCR’s executive director. “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.”

The complaint draws on data that came to light amid the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of affirmative action last week, which effectively curtailed colleges’ ability to consider race in their admissions processes, likely making it harder for thousands of marginalized students to access higher education.

“There’s no birthright to Harvard. As the Supreme Court recently noted, ‘eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,’” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “There should be no way to identify who your parents are in the college application process.”

In a statement about the lawsuit, LCR contended that the Supreme Court’s ruling makes it “even more imperative now to eliminate policies that systematically disadvantage students of color.”

The records uncovered during the affirmative action case showed that donor-related applicants to Harvard University were nearly seven times more likely to be admitted than non-donor related applicants, and that legacy candidates were more than six times more likely to be admitted. Nearly 70 percent of Harvard donor-related and legacy applicants are white.

“Harvard’s practice of giving a leg-up to the children of wealthy donors and alumni — who have done nothing to deserve it — must end,” said Michael Kippins, Litigation Fellow at LCR. “This preferential treatment overwhelmingly goes to white applicants and harms efforts to diversify.”

About 28 percent of the Harvard class of 2019 were legacy admissions and only 57 percent of white students who were admitted were admitted on merit.

“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,” LCR said in a statement.

In recent years, numerous colleges and universities — including all higher education institutions in Colorado; the University of California; Johns Hopkins University; and Amherst College — have abandoned the practice of prioritizing donor-related and legacy applicants after finding the practice to be unfair. LCR hopes that this lawsuit will set a precedent to end legacy admissions at all universities.

“If the federal probe into the civil rights implications of donor and legacy admissions comes down our way … then we will see not just a change at Harvard but at other institutions as well,” said Espinoza-Madrigal on Boston Public Radio. “And so this will have a domino effect.”

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