How does federal judge’s ruling in Harvard admissions case relate to UNC-Chapel Hill?

UNC-Chapel Hill.
UNC-Chapel Hill. News & Observer file photo

A federal judge has ruled that Harvard should continue to consider race in its admissions process, an issue that UNC-Chapel Hill also is currently fighting in court.

Federal District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs said in her decision Tuesday that “ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions.” She wrote that the elite private university’s admissions program “passes constitutional muster.”

The affirmative action case originated when Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit in 2014 against Harvard. The group argued that how Harvard uses race to admit students discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

The anti-affirmative action group, led by activist Edward Blum, also sued UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014, claiming the public university’s admissions process unfairly uses race. The group is made up of thousands of rejected applicants, prospective students and parents who are concerned about racial preferences in college admissions.

UNC officials declined to comment Tuesday evening on the outcome of the Harvard case or how it might affect the ongoing UNC case.

UNC has defended its admissions practices, saying its policies “comply with the spirit and letter of the law,” The News & Observer previously reported.

On its website about the lawsuit, UNC says “eliminating the consideration of race in U.S. college admissions threatens academic excellence at the University and challenges our ability to create a diverse community of talented students from varied backgrounds and different perspectives.”

Students for Fair Admissions argues “UNC’s use of race is the opposite of individualized; UNC uses race mechanically to ensure the admission of the vast majority of underrepresented minorities,” according to the plaintiffs’ brief filed in January 2019.

Blum said in a news release at the time that the court filing “exposes the startling magnitude of the University of North Carolina’s racial preferences,” according to the N&O.

One example Blum gave was that an Asian-American male applicant from North Carolina with a 25% chance of getting into UNC would have about a 67% chance of getting in if he were Latino and a more than 90% chance if he were African-American, The News & Observer previously reported.

UNC defends its “holistic, individualized, and comprehensive” admissions process that considers race as one of many factors in evaluating applicants, according to UNC’s website about the lawsuit. The university says each student’s “academic performance, test scores, class rank, essays, experiences, circumstances and potential to contribute to the educational environment” are considered. Race or ethnicity is included in that list if a student decides to share that information.

“Carolina does not use quotas or formulas, and we do not discriminate against any applicant or group,” the website says.

The most recent filing in the UNC lawsuit was Sept. 30, when District Judge Loretta C. Biggs denied the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment and granted the plaintiff’s motion to seal certain documents.

While the cases are being adjudicated separately, both have been followed closely in the higher education world. Even with the recent ruling in favor of Harvard, the case could be appealed and taken to the Supreme Court. And both the UNC and Harvard cases could have lasting implications for affirmative action and race-conscious admissions policies across the nation.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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