Why the Education Dept. dismissed a discrimination complaint against Harvard

Entrance to Harvard Yard. Photo by Amy Gizienski/Flikr.

Photo of Harvard Yard by Flikr user Amy Gizienski

The Education Department has dismissed a claim that Harvard shows bias against Asian-American applicants, because a similar lawsuit has already been filed in federal court.

The story was originally reported Tuesday by Bloomberg Business after the news organization obtained a letter from the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. According to a statement, the Office can dismiss a complaint when the same allegation, against the same party, seeking the same relief is pending in a court proceeding.

In May, a coalition of more than 60 organizations filed a complaint with the Department of Education, alleging that Harvard holds higher expectations for its Asian applicants than for other minorities.

The federal complaint asked the Department of Education to investigate, alleging the university uses racial quotas that hurt Asian-American applicants.

Swan Lee helped to organize the coalition. She claims that the system needs more transparency.

“We feel the Department of Education and the Department of Justice should have access to Harvard’s admissions records,” Lee said.

Lee says Harvard’s admissions process unjustly lumps together all Asians into a single group. The university says its admissions philosophy is “holistic,” and it complies with the law.

But the complaint, now dismissed, followed a lawsuit making similar claims that was filed in federal district court in Boston in November. The group behind that lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions Inc., is also responsible for another case against the University of North Carolina.

Civil rights activists suggest both the complaint and the lawsuit are actually aimed at undermining admissions policies that give access to black and hispanic students.

This story comes from On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.