Education Department opens investigation into Harvard’s donor, legacy admissions preferences | news

Updated on July 25, 2023 at 4:08 pm

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Education officially opened an investigation Tuesday into Harvard University’s use of donor and legacy options in its admissions processes.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether the use of donor and legacy options in its undergraduate admissions practices discriminates on the basis of race.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education confirmed in a statement Tuesday that the department’s Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into Harvard under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A spokesman declined to comment further, citing a policy against discussing ongoing investigations.

A study released Monday by Harvard economists found that Ivy League universities give wealthier applicants significant admissions advantages over similarly qualified, less affluent students.

It comes a day before the Department of Education hosts the National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education — a gathering of Biden administration officials and higher education leaders to discuss how to uphold commitments to equity and diversity following the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action.

Days after the Supreme Court effectively halted affirmative action in higher education, lawyers for a nonprofit civil rights group filed a federal complaint seeking an investigation into Harvard’s use of admissions preferences for the children of alumni and wealthy donors.

Harvard spokesman Jonathan L. Swain confirmed Tuesday that the university was notified by the Department of Education that it had begun an investigation into the use of its legacy and donor preferences in admissions.

Swain wrote in a statement that Harvard had conducted an internal review of its admissions practices.

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“Following the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, we are reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to ensure compliance with the law and to advance Harvard’s longstanding commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences,” Swain wrote.

“As this work continues and progresses, Harvard is committed to opening doors to opportunity and redouble our efforts to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to apply for admission,” Swain added.

The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education said in a letter obtained by The Crimson that civil rights lawyers on Monday opened an investigation into Harvard in response to their federal complaint.

The Department of Education will investigate “whether the university discriminates on the basis of race in its undergraduate admissions processes by using donor and legacy options in violation of Title VI and its implementing regulations.”

The letter also emphasized that the initiation of an investigation does not mean that Harvard has been found to have violated Title VI.

“Please note that the opening of a complaint for investigation does not in any way indicate that OCR has determined the merits of the complaint,” the letter states. “During the investigation, OCR acts as a neutral fact finder, gathering and analyzing relevant evidence from the complainant, the university and other sources.”

Attorney for Civil Rights Lawyers Michael A. Gibbins said in an interview Tuesday that he “has been concerned about these donor and legacy options for some time now.”

“We at Civil Rights Lawyers decided to file this federal civil rights complaint to remove barriers that harm applicants of color and build diversity in higher education,” he said.

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According to Gibbins, the timeline for an investigation by a federal agency can vary “widely.”

“There is, of course, an opportunity here for Harvard to voluntarily eliminate these options — which is the goal of our federal civil rights complaint,” he said. “In any case, it would eliminate the need for an investigation.”

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mherszenhorn.

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