Federal lawsuit shows how Harvard’s admissions favors the wealthy

The trial is bringing up some controversial aspects of Harvard's admissions process.

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo Credit: Arcaid/UIG via Getty Images)
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo Credit: Arcaid/UIG via Getty Images)

The influence of applicants’ ties to donors in the admissions process at Harvard was revealed by lawyers in a Boston federal court this week. The trial is focused on challenging race conscious admissions, but in the process put the spotlight on a shadowy process that allows the wealthy to use their influence to secure a spot at the university.

The federal lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian American students in its admissions process began its trial this week, and emails revealed the extent to which donors’ connections to students affected this process.

During the trial, Bill Fitzsimmons, who was the head of Harvard admissions for three decades, said he added relatives of donors to a list of students he tracks, regardless of the strength of their academic record and other factors that would determine if they were a good applicant. In emails to Fitzsimmons, the then dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, David Ellwood, wrote in an email, “I am simply thrilled about all the folks you were able to admit. … All big wins.” He added that one donor “has already committed to a building” and “committed major money for fellowships,” the Boston Globe reported.

In 2014, there was an email from the Harvard men’s tennis coach to Fitzsimmons that mentioned a student whose family donated over $1 million over four years and had donated to two professorships. The coach wrote, “we rolled out the red carpet and we’re all delighted that [the student] had a great time,” according to the Globe.


These emails evoke the claims of an anonymous Harvard admissions official who wrote in 2015 that the process was a “sham”:

So in the grand scheme of things, I realized I was powerless to say no to those who were only marginally deserving of an Ivy League spot, and completely unequipped to find those who could make the most of a top-shelf education but who never even thought to ask for one. Instead of giving people a boost on the ladder to upward mobility, I felt that I was simply there to make sure the children of the upper class stayed in the virtuous cycle that would keep them in the upper class. And there’s no point in staying in a volunteer job that brings you nothing but frustration.

Daniel Golden, a ProPublica editor, explored the power the wealthy have in the admissions process in his 2006 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. In an interview with ThinkProgress last year, Golden said the problem with legacies — or applicants related to someone who attended the university — has only grown worse since then. Even though legacies’ acceptance rates declined at Ivy League universities, he said, legacies still have more of an advantage over non-legacy students. And as schools lose small grassroot donors, they become more reliant on those donors.

Harvard has defended itself from these emails about donors and applicants by saying that the students were academically similar to other students in their classes and that the attention paid by donors helps the university pay for scholarships and financial aid.

The emails came up in a case attacking race conscious admissions at Harvard. The case is led by Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist who worked on the Fisher v. University of Texas, Austin case, also an attack on race conscious admissions. Plaintiffs have alleged that Harvard used its personal rating category that considers character traits to reject Asian Americans and accept Black students and emphasizes records of Asian students having the best academic records but the lowest admissions rate.


Although the lawyers representing the nonprofit Blum leads, Students for Fair Admissions, argued that Asian Americans face discrimination in admissions thanks to the university favoring legacies, people with connections to donors, and recruited athletes, the lawyers also focused on Black applicants. Students for Fair Admissions made a chart showing that Black applicants, legacy applicants, and students with high personal ratings had a better chance of getting into the university, according to The Atlantic.

The lead attorney for Students for Fair Admissions, Adam Mortara, said, “The future of affirmative action is not on trial.” But later on, Mortara made it clear which group of students the plaintiff is focusing on when it comes to the supposed advantages they enjoy over Asian American students. Mortara said that Asians “dramatically and shockingly” score lower than Black students and Latinx students in personal ratings.

Mortara said that Harvard went too far in its “zeal” to consider race in admissions and “let the wolf of racial bias in through the front door,” NBC News reported.

Advocates for race conscious admissions are concerned that this latest attack could put decades of legal precedent allowing the consideration of race in danger, thanks to the recent addition of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Universities are now allowed to consider race in their policies as long as they look at a variety of factors and qualities. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld UT Austin’s program in 2016, but Blum isn’t tired of fighting for “race blind admissions.” Legal experts say that this is Blum’s way of expanding the fight against race conscious admissions into private universities’ admissions policies.