AFTER THE US Supreme Court ruled this spring to significantly scale back higher educational institutions’ use of affirmative action, advocacy and civil rights groups wound up for a counter-punch at Harvard. America’s oldest university, and its policy of allowing for legacy admission preference, is in the crosshairs of both a federal investigation and a civil rights lawsuit.
“That is one of the main reasons why we then decided to file the federal civil rights complaint targeting legacy and donor preferences,” Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said on the Codcast. It was “essentially to say, if you’re gonna look at what you call preferential treatment, you really need to examine all of the real preferences that are out there – the ones that go overwhelmingly to White students.”
Legacy admissions, and the related donor preferences, give preferred treatment in the admissions process to the children or relatives of alumni and wealthy donors. Data revealed during the affirmative action lawsuit brought against Harvard – by groups arguing that it demonstrated impermissible preference on the basis of race – also showed the disparate impact of legacy preferences.
About 15 percent of Harvard’s admitted students fall into those two categories, the Lawyers for Civil Rights complaint says, citing the admissions data. Donor-related and legacy applicants applicants, which were about 70 percent White, were nearly seven and six times more likely to be admitted than those who did not fall into those respective categories.
Lawyers for Civil Rights filed its complaint last month targeting Harvard’s preferential admittance policies for the Greater Boston Latino Network, the African Community Economic Development of New England, and the Chica Project. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has since opened an investigation into the university.
Research from Harvard and Brown professors this June supports the coalition’s case. In their report, Raj Chetty, David Deming, and John Friedman said applicants to those elite colleges and universities often have a “high-income admissions advantage” because of preferences for children of alumni; non-academic credentials, which tend to be stronger for students applying from private high schools; and recruitment of athletes, who tend to come from higher-income families.
Some argue that there are upsides to legacy preferences, or at least that they make up a small enough proportion of elite enough institutions that they don’t matter all that much on the scale of things.
In a Boston Globe column, Kara Miller says the focus on elite institutions continues to boost their status, and it may be a losing battle to focus on discouraging those institutions from understandably seeking to cultivate wealthy and influential attendees and donors.
“Certainly it is the case that admission to elite institutions can be important for many people,” Sellstrom said. “But there is no connection between recognizing that and then saying that legacy or donor preferences should exist. If anything, the answer is the reverse. If institutions are important as they are, then it’s all the more important that they have fair and equitable admissions processes that do not give somebody a boost just because they share a last name with the science building.”
The ripple effects of the affirmative action ruling could be felt throughout the educational world. For now, using proxies for race like zip code are still in place across the country, but increasingly facing challenges aimed at the high court. So advocacy groups are also casting a wide net in response – helping institutions amend admissions policies, educating students and families about how to work within the new framework that will allow universities to consider race on an individual rather than group level, and targeting other preferential systems.
As admission season gears up, Sellstrom said colleges and universities are changing their policies, particularly their essay questions, to ask students if there something about their background, the neighborhood they grew up in, where they came from geographically, or their racial or ethnic background that concretely impacted their life.
Lawyers for Civil Rights may next go after admissions criteria like athletic preference, which was one of the factors that researchers identified as contributing to income-based advantage.
“So many of the different processes that are used by colleges and universities really need to be examined at this point,” Sellstrom said. “We are at a critical point in our nation’s history when it comes to education access. This Supreme Court decision really was a bombshell – not an unexpected one, but one that is really going to change the landscape of what it means for admissions to institutions of higher learning.”
Legal limbo: Massachusetts cities and towns, using money raised via a surcharge on property tax bills authorized by the Community Preservation Act, have repeatedly authorized grants for historic churches. But no one really knows whether those grants are legal in the wake of a 2018 Supreme Judicial Court decision that failed to draw a clear line between what’s historical and what’s essentially religious.
– The 2018 decision walked a fine line. It said using Community Preservation Act funds to restore historic churches wasn’t an automatic violation of the law because an earlier US Supreme Court decision held that taxpayer money for playgrounds directed to nonprofits under a state program must be made available to religious schools as well. But the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision said the Community Preservation Act funding generally couldn’t go for obviously religious uses, such as stained glass windows depicting Jesus. The court referred the case back to a lower court to make the final determination, but before that could happen, the parties agreed to withdraw the grant applications that prompted the complaint and left the whole issue in a fuzzy limbo.
– Five years later, municipalities continue to steer Community Preservation Act funds to churches, but no one is quite sure whether the funding is going to spark another legal challenge. “Cities and towns really wish they had some clear guidance out of this decision,” said Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, a statewide organization that works with local governments on preservation efforts. Read more.
Housing law tweaked: The state tweaks the MBTA communities housing law to offer a carrot (more leeway in counting units) and a stick (additional penalties for noncompliance). Read more.
Tips on federal aid: With lots of federal money available for economic development, former Charlie Baker cabinet members Jay Ash and James Peyser offer some advice on how to get the biggest bang for the buck. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is expected to make recommendations on a major rework of the critical Blue Hill Avenue corridor by the end of the year. (Dorchester Reporter)
Raynham and Middleboro are at moderate risk for West Nile virus. (The Enterprise)
Over the last two years, Rep. Stephen Lynch has secured a $2 million budget earmark for the South Boston health center where his wife works as marketing and development director and a $1 million earmark for a neighborhood nonprofit that provides addiction treatment services where she serves as an unpaid director. (Boston Globe)
The Boston Globe endorses Ben Weber, one of two challengers vying against embattled City Councilor Kendra Lara, who is facing a rash of charges in connection with crashing a car into a Jamaica Plain home while driving without a valid driver’s license at more than twice the speed limit, according to police.
Boston and the state of Massachusetts receive $2 million to support migrant housing and transit. (GBH)
Framingham’s migrant population is increasing rapidly, with two new waves bringing the total number of families in hotels to 52. (MetroWest Daily News)
Worcester may open a “welcome center” for migrants and refugees in response to the current shortage of shelter space for new arrivals to the city. (Worcester Telegram)
The Massachusetts unemployment rate slides down 0.1 percent to 2.5 percent. (State House News Service)
The MGM Springfield casino has been a mixed blessing for surrounding businesses. (MassLive)
Michael Morris is stepping down as superintendent of the Amherst-Pelham regional school system. The announcement said his departure was not related to any wrongdoing on his part, but it comes at a time of protests about the handling of LGBTQ complaints at the middle school. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)
UMass Amherst researchers win a $1.1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to find ways to help low-income homeowners and neighborhoods transition to a clean energy future. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)
The guy who led the legal charge that upended the use of affirmative action in college admissions is now setting his sights on doing the same in the world of workplace hiring. (Boston Globe)
The city of Westfield denied allegations in a lawsuit filed by a veteran city police officer that the city failed to pay patrol officers who worked regular and overtime shifts for the full time that they worked. (MassLive)