Law Case Analysis: SFFA v. Harvard

The education system in the US is a complex entity that changes and alters based on the external and internal environment. The factors that can impact it induce the social climate, economic shifts, innovation, and legislator premises. Legislation and, more specifically, court cases exemplify precedents that can further impact the whole academic system. A single case can have the potential to revolutionize the practices, policies, and goals schools implement when it comes to admissions, campus life, and evaluation measures. In this paper, the case Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (“SFFA”) v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Board of Overseers (“Harvard”) will be discussed in relation to the effect of the precedent on the educational policies, the ethical considerations, and the legal implications followed by the court ruling.

Overview

The court case that will be discussed further is SFFA v. Harvard. Namely, the non-profit organization Students for Fair Admissions has claimed that Harvard’s admission policies deny individuals of Asian descent a fair opportunity due to the college’s aim to improve diversity on campus (LexisNexis, 2020). Despite Asian candidates having a better chance of being admitted based on Harvard’s requirements when it comes to grades, the school’s policy implies that race is one of the factors that is being considered. On the contrary, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race and other characteristics in case the perpetrator receives federal funding (Office of Civil Rights, 2021). Harvard does indeed receive federal funding, which makes the title applicable (Snibbe, 2020). The court, however, decided that the college did not infringe upon the legislation, and while the race is a consideration, no quotas when it comes to individuals with certain ethnicities is implemented in the admission policy.

Issues Surrounding the Case

The first issue surrounding the case is its context in relation to racial discrimination since the demographic that has been affected is a minority. However, Asian Americans are not misrepresented in the education system, unlike African Americans and other racial minorities (Sugino, 2022). Thus, the case itself has been labeled as evidence of anti-blackness. On the other hand, the college does not have a race-neutral policy. As stated by researchers, the race-neutral policy implemented prior to affirmative action has led to a decline in diversity (Zisk, 2021). Nonetheless, considering race as a factor that either facilitates admission or limits the chances has been assessed by the Supreme Court of the United States as non-infringing upon the premises of Civil Rights. The decision can potentially lead to a backlash in case certain universities decide to apply similar premises but with an opposing aim to promote a lack of diversity. Thus, a school that is historically overrepresented by African American students can potentially limit the opportunities of such students in favor of white students, which directly limits opportunities for education for a certain demographic. Moreover, it is uncertain whether affirmative action, as illustrated in the case above, will lead to positive results in terms of supporting vulnerable populations.

Impact on Educational Policy

As mentioned prior, court cases such as the one discussed in the current paper establish educational policies that have legislation as evidence for their validity. Thus, it is uncertain how the decision will be implemented by other educational institutions. On the one hand, if all universities have an informal quota on students of different ethnicities, the whole education system can change towards a more divisive one. Schools will be able to change their regulations on specific classes and grading systems that take race into consideration and emphasize the need for learning for the marginalized communities while dismissing the same goal in regard to ones that are prioritized by universities. On the other hand, universities may adopt the same premises but with the mission of enhancing the admission of non-marginalized students. This can be considered segregation since allowing institutions to consider race as one of the characteristics that are being taken into account during the candidate reviews may not lead to diversity but have opposite outcomes. Moreover, since Harvard does not have a quota that may or may not mimic societal demographic differences, it is uncertain whether the policy addressed equality of outcome or created dispersion.

Ethical Considerations

Affirmative action is, in itself, based on the ethical consideration of the marginalization and the lack of equal opportunities that can disadvantage certain demographics. In the aforementioned case, it is argued that the academic system in the US is to be based on performance and effort rather than race. According to researchers, the ethical consideration of racial integration is not necessarily fair or valid when it comes to education (Heriot & Kirsanow, 2022). From one perspective, it is ethical to allow vulnerable groups to have a better chance of advancing by providing them with a high-quality education. However, it can be argued that the court’s decision is unethical toward Asian Americans who may have been disadvantaged yet reached the necessary academic results to be accepted in Ivy League schools such as Harvard. Thus, the court’s decision cannot be considered ethical, and the precedent is ambiguous when it comes to the premise of equality of opportunity, which is a direct concept within the ethics of educational policies.

There are several legal considerations that arise from the case. While the decision of the Supreme Court in favor of the college denies the academic institution went against the Civil Rights Act, Title VI specifically highlights that race shall not be a characteristic to be discriminated against. Thus, it is uncertain whether the legal premises of the decision allow discrimination in certain cases, which groups can be marginalized within the admission practices, and whether all entities receiving federal funding can adopt a similar policy. Researchers specifically mentioned hiring practices in regards to employers who decide on potential employees based on their individual circumstances rather than a factual degree (Kannan et al., 2019). Thus, employers aware of the affirmative action implementations can dismiss African American candidates assuming they were enrolled in Ivy League schools based on their race rather than performances. While legislation protects individuals in such circumstances, the aforementioned case may become the basis on which employers will be able to adopt such policies.

Conclusion

The court case SFFA v. Harvard may have changed the educational system in regards to the equal opportunity policy and shifted towards a strategy that aligns with affirmative action. It is certain that the basis for the case is ethics, which can be exemplified from both sides. On the one hand, the Asian American community highlights that the admission processes lack objectivity, and students are to be enrolled based on the efforts they have put into studying and achieving excellent results. On the other hand, it is certain that specific races are underrepresented and are often encountering limitations that hinder opportunities for education. However, the decision lacks consideration of other factors such as household income, background, and life experience. Thus, providing more or fewer opportunities based on race may be less effective than promoting education for individuals who are disadvantaged on an economic, social, and political level despite their ethnicity.

References

Heriot, G. L., & Kirsanow, P. (2022). Brief amicus curiae of Gail Heriot and Peter N. Kirsanow, members of the U.S Commission on Civil Rights, in their personal capacities in support of petitioner in Students for Fair Admissions, inc. v. president and fellows of Harvard College (no. 20-1199) (merits stage version). SSRN Electronic Journal. Web.

Kannan, S., Roth, A., & Ziani, J. (2019). Downstream effects of affirmative action. Proceedings of the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. Web.

LexisNexis. (2020). Students for fair admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard Collage – 980 f.3d 157 (1st cir. 2020). LexisNexis.

Office of Civil Rights. (2021). Civil Rights Requirements Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. HHS.gov. Web.

Snibbe, K. (2020). Harvard attracts federal funding, supports economy. Harvard Gazette. Web.

Sugino, C. M. (2022). Multicultural anti-racism: Anti-blackness and Asian Americans in students for fair admissions V. Harvard. Western Journal of Communication, 1–20. Web.

Zisk, N. L. (2021). Why a consideration of race is important to medical school admissions. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 49(2), 181–189. Web.

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