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Harvard faces federal civil rights probe over legacy admissions

Harvard faces federal civil rights probe over legacy admissions © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Students and pedestrians walk through the Yard at Harvard University, after the school asked its students not to return to campus after Spring Break and said it would move to virtual instruction for graduate and undergraduate classes, in Cambr

By Julia Harte and Nate Raymond

(Reuters) -The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether Harvard racially discriminates by favoring applicants with ties to donors and alumni in its admissions process, according to a letter from the agency.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights opened the probe following a complaint filed earlier this month by three civil rights groups, who argued that Harvard’s preference for “legacy” undergraduate applicants overwhelmingly benefits white students, in violation of a federal civil rights law.

Many colleges and universities use legacy admissions policies, but they have drawn renewed scrutiny since June, when the Supreme Court struck down race-conscious policies adopted by Harvard College and the University of North Carolina to ensure more non-white students are admitted.

Applicants with legacy or donor ties to Harvard College, the undergraduate school of Harvard University, are nearly 70% white, and six to seven times more likely to be admitted than regular applicants, according to the complaint.

Those statistics were calculated from Harvard admissions data that became public as a result of the case that the Supreme Court decided in June. The Education Department is expected to collect more current data in the course of its investigation.

A Harvard spokesperson said the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Ivy League school is reviewing aspects of its admissions policies to ensure it can continue admitting a diverse student body following the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Harvard remains dedicated to … redoubling our efforts to encourage students from many different backgrounds to apply for admission,” the Harvard spokesperson, Nicole Rura, said in a statement.

The Education Department through a spokesperson confirmed it had an open investigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars race discrimination for programs receiving federal funds. The agency had no further comment.

Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus announced they would stop using legacy admissions in July, following a handful of other U.S. higher education institutions that have ended them in recent years.

“Simply put, Harvard is on the wrong side of history,” said Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, the Boston-based group representing the civil rights groups who prompted the Education Department investigation.

Sellstrom spoke at a Tuesday press conference regarding the federal probe, along with representatives for two of the Boston-area civil rights groups represented in the complaint.

“This percentage that’s being automatically accepted into Harvard is not fair, and it is leaving our young people of color out of the equation,” said Zaida Ismatul Oliva, head of the Chica Project, an organization offering educational and professional mentorship for young women of color.

Edward Blum, the affirmative action opponent whose group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard and secured last month’s Supreme Court ruling, said his organization too hopes that colleges end legacy preferences.

“However, it is unlikely legacy preferences are illegal since organizations like the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense Foundation would have brought lawsuits challenging these practices many years ago,” he said in an email.

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