Following last week's Supreme Court decision to overturn affirmative action, a Boston-based civil rights legal group is challenging the practice of legacy admissions at Harvard University, arguing that the practice discriminates against applicants of color by favoring majority-white alumni.
The nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Monday on behalf of local Black and Latino community groups and alleges that the admissions process violates the Civil Rights Act.
"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. And so this will have a domino effect," said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, on Boston Public Radio Wednesday. "That is the precedent-setting value of what we're doing here, is to make sure that legacy and donor admissions can't be used across the board."
According to the complaint, almost 70% of Harvard's legacy and donor-related applicants are white, and both are more likely to be admitted. Legacy applicants are nearly six times more likely to be admitted, and donor-related applicants are nearly seven times more likely to be admitted compared to non-donor-related applicants.
Espinoza-Madrigal said as colleges and universities are going back to the drawing board following the affirmative action decision, it is vital to tackle systemic obstacles to diversity on campuses.
"We think this is only fair in light of the Supreme Court's recent ruling, emphasizing that no group should get preferences and advantages," Espinoza-Madrigal said.
Espinoza-Madrigal referenced Harvard's class of 2019, where approximately 28% of the class was legacy students, saying the high number took away opportunities from qualified Black and Latino applicants in favor of white legacy students.
One study from Duke University, based on Harvard data released during the race-conscious admissions lawsuit, found that the share of white admits at Harvard would fall if preferences for athletes and legacies were removed.
“We just don't have a sufficient dataset, but the fact that there are some promising outlooks, I think, is significant. And it shows us that we should invest further and moving in this direction, and we should just outright eliminate the preferences,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
However, Espinoza-Madrigal pointed out that while legacy and donor-related admissions are common in higher education, some institutions have done away with the practice. In 2021, Amherst College, where legacy students represented about 11% of each class, ended its legacy admissions program. Now, the incoming class of 2027 is made up of 6% legacy admissions, and 50% domestic students of color, according to the college. The University of Oxford, MIT and UC Berkeley also do not take legacy status into consideration during applications.
Espinoza-Madrigal said this shift is a promising step forward, but often this change can take time. He believes now is the moment for it to happen as the country's most selective schools reevaluate their admissions process in light of last week's ruling.
"As universities go back to the drawing board and try to reconfigure their admissions based on what the Supreme Court says, they should just change the whole thing right now get rid of the legacy and donor preferences. And then let's see how that impacts the admissions process in the next cycle," he said. "We're gonna keep fighting, we're going to keep pushing because this is a matter of fairness and equity."
Legacy admissions faced scrutiny from both the Supreme Court’s conservative and liberal justices last week, with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor each criticizing it the practice in their concurring and dissenting opinions.
"[Legacy admissions] are no help to applicants who cannot boast of their parents’ good fortune or trips to the alumni tent all their lives. While race-neutral on their face, too, these preferences undoubtedly benefit white and wealthy applicants the most," wrote Gorsuch.
"It's not just the liberal or progressive justices that are keeping an eye on the issue," Espinoza-Madrigal said. "So I don't think this is an ‘us versus them,’ or even a ‘liberal versus conservative’ issue. I think this is an issue of fairness."
Critics of the lawsuit have argued that legacy admissions has less to do with race than it does funding: Through legacy and donor-related admissions, institutions are able to maintain connections with affluent donors and, in turn, receive further funds that can go towards financial aid for disadvantaged students. Espinoza-Madrigal said, however, that this argument isn't compelling.
"Let's be clear, a place like Harvard has more money than most countries — as some people have put it online, they have more money than God. And so the idea that they are crying of financial need, and that that interest is what motivates this, I don't think that carries any water here," he said. "Harvard as an institution might have an interest in continuing to get more and more rich, and they already are, but that does not have the tangible, concrete educational benefit of admitting kids into world-class educational opportunities."