At a time of deepening racial and political divisions among Americans, a trial widely perceived to be a referendum on affirmative action will begin on Monday in Boston, bringing into a courtroom decades of fierce disputes over whether Harvard University and other elite institutions use racial balancing to shape their classes.
The case accuses Harvard of setting a quota on Asian-American students accepted to the university and holding them to a higher standard than applicants of other races. It flips the strategy used in past challenges to race-conscious admissions: Instead of arguing that the school disadvantages whites, the plaintiffs say that Harvard is admitting minority groups and white students over another minority, Asian-Americans.
Asian-Americans are divided on the case, with some saying they are being unfairly used as a wedge in a brazen attempt to abolish affirmative action. But it is not yet clear whether the case will make new law — perhaps banning the consideration of race in college admissions — or will narrowly affect only Harvard. Legal experts say at the very least, the case will expose the sometimes arcane admissions practices of one of the most selective institutions in the world.
At most, it could make its way to a newly more conservative Supreme Court and change the face of college admissions.
“I definitely think that this will affect the fate of affirmative action and therefore racial diversity in universities across the country,” said Nicole Gon Ochi, a lawyer for Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles. “It’s about much more than a few elite universities like Harvard.”
The case is particularly resonant, experts say, because Harvard’s “holistic” admissions policy, which considers race as one factor among many, has been held up as a model by the Supreme Court since a landmark affirmative action case in 1978, and is effectively the law of the land. Harvard says that it does not discriminate, but considers each student individually to build a class of diverse backgrounds, races, talents and ideas.
The trial will unfold as millions of high school students are figuring out how to define themselves in their college applications. It comes as heated political campaigns fought over racial and economic fault lines culminate in midterm elections.
And it comes as the Trump administration continues to tip its hand toward the plaintiffs. The Justice Department has filed a statement of interest in the case. It has opened its own inquiries into complaints of discrimination against Asian-Americans, at Harvard and at Yale. And in July, the Education and Justice Departments withdrew Obama-era guidelines that encouraged the consideration of race in college admissions.
The rest of the Ivy League has closed ranks behind Harvard, filing a joint amicus brief, and universities across the nation are watching intently for a ruling with wide-ranging impacts.
The lawsuit says that Harvard holds the proportions of each race in its classes roughly constant and manipulates a vague “personal” admissions rating to downgrade applications from Asian-Americans. By doing this, the suit says, Harvard is violating federal civil rights…