America's prestigious Harvard University has been cleared of discriminating against Asian American applicants by a court, in a ruling seen as a major victory for supporters of affirmative action.
US universities are permitted to consider race, alongside other factors, in order to create diversity on campuses.
But a group called Students for Fair Admissions had accused Harvard of deliberately and illegally capping the number of Asian Americans it accepted, while giving preference to black and Hispanic students with poorer grades.
It claimed Asian Americans were held to a higher standard - something which it said amounted to an “Asian penalty”.
However, a judge at the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts, found that there was ”no evidence of any racial animus whatsoever” in the Ivy League college’s policy.
“Race conscious admissions will always penalise to some extent the groups that are not being advantaged by the process but this is justified by the compelling interest in diversity and all the benefits that flow from a diverse college population,” said District Judge Allison D Burroughs.
She said that Harvard’s admission process was “not perfect” but that it was still constitutional, adding that the university had proved its use of race was limited and that abandoning it as a factor would lead to a sharp decline in diversity.
The high profile case has triggered heated debate in the US over university policies and affirmative action more generally.
Conservatives have long opposed affirmative action policies, but its supporters argue that it remains necessary to address historic discrimination against African Americans in the US.
Edward Blum, the conservative lawyer who is the president of Students for Fair Admissions, has been accused of wanting to ban all affirmative action policies.
The controversial lawyer has said he will appeal the latest ruling.
“Students for Fair Admissions is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard‘s discriminatory admissions policies,” he said in a statement after the ruling.
He added: “We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis and depositions... presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard‘s systematic discrimination against Asian-American applicants.”
Laurence S Bacow, the Ivy League university’s president, said consideration of race and other factors “helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student”.
He added: “Today we reaffirm the importance of diversity – and everything it represents to the world."
Donald Trump’s Department of Justice was said to to be investigating the use of race in Harvard University’s admissions policies in 2017.
A study published earlier this month found that three per cent of white students at Harvard gained admission through being athletes, legacy students with family connections, children of faculty and the children of donors.
Conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, it found that around 75 per cent of the students in those categories would have been rejected if treated as a standard applicant.
“Removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged,” the study concluded.
Of the students admitted in 2019 Asian Americans made up 25.6 per cent of the body, African Americans 13.1 per cent, Hispanics 11.8 per cent and Native Americans and Native Hawaiians 2.2 per cent.
White students made up almost 47 per cent of the year group.
Ms Burroughs said Harvard’s admissions process could be providing “implicit bias” training to staff and by maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race.
Additional reporting by agencies
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