Activists spurred by affirmative action ruling challenge legacy admissions at Harvard

Demonstrators protest on June 29 outside of the Supreme Court in Washington after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

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 the mostly white children of alumni.

The practice of giving priority to the children of alumni has faced growing pushback in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court’s decision ending affirmative action in higher education.

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The NAACP added its weight behind the effort on Monday, asking more than 1,500 colleges and universities to even the playing field in admissions, including by ending legacy admissions.

The civil rights complaint was filed Monday by Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Boston, on behalf of Black and Latino community groups in New England, alleging that Harvard’s admissions system violates the Civil Rights Act.

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

Opponents say the practice is no longer defensible without affirmative action providing a counterbalance. The court’s ruling says colleges must ignore the race of applicants, activists point out, but schools can still give a boost to the children of alumni and donors.

The complaint, submitted with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, draws on Harvard data that came to light amid the affirmative action case that landed before the Supreme Court. The records revealed that 70% of Harvard’s donor-related and legacy applicants are white, and being a legacy student makes an applicant roughly six times more likely to be admitted.

It draws attention to other colleges that have abandoned 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 slots from qualified students of color. It asks the U.S. Education Department to declare the practice illegal and force Harvard to abandon it as long as the university receives federal funding.

“A spot given to a legacy or donor-related applicant is a spot that becomes unavailable to an applicant who meets the admissions criteria based purely on his or her own merit,” according to the complaint. If legacy and donor preferences were removed, it 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 upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences,” the university said in a prepared statement.

The complaint was filed on behalf of Chica Project, African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Greater Boston Latino Network.

Also Monday, the NAACP launched a campaign aiming to get universities across the nation to promote campus diversity. The group called on 532 public and 1,134 private colleges and universities to end legacy preferences, eliminate “racially biased” entrance examinations, recruit diverse faculty, and support low-income and first-generation students with scholarships and mentoring, among other steps.

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