• October 31, 2014

Affirmative-Action Foe Plans Campaigns Against 3 Universities

[Updated (4/7/2014, 7:26 p.m.) with comment from North Carolina and Wisconsin.]

The Project on Fair Representation, a nonprofit legal organization, is seeking plaintiffs for potential lawsuits challenging the race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The organization announced the effort on Monday.

The project has created three nearly identical Web sites (HARVARDnotFair.org, UNCnotFair.org, and UWnotFair.org) that invite rejected applicants at each of the three institutions to contact the organization. The Harvard-specific site, for instance, asks, "Were you denied to Harvard? It may be because you’re the wrong race."

In a news release, the organization said it believes that Harvard "is discriminating against Asian-American students by using a ‘quota’ or ‘ceiling’ to limit their admission to the university."

The Chronicle requested comment on Monday from the three universities. By late Monday, North Carolina and Wisconsin had responded with a defense of their policies.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ambiguous ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (No. 11-345) last June, colleges that consider applicants’ race and ethnicity have reassessed their admissions policies, hoping to insulate them from legal challenges.

On the heels of the ruling, Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, predicted "a wave of litigation against colleges." Now his organization—which provided legal counsel to Abigail Noel Fisher, the plaintiff in the Texas case—is poised to make more waves.

The organization is also encouraging anyone with "firsthand knowledge" of the use of race in admissions policies and practices at the three colleges "to come forward and speak up as well," the news release says.

A Matchmaker

Mr. Blum, who is not a lawyer, has characterized himself as a matchmaker. He seeks plaintiffs to challenge policies, and then links them up with lawyers who are willing to represent them at little or no cost. Mr. Blum found Ms. Fisher, the daughter of an old friend, more than two years after he started his search (he had created a website similar to those that he unveiled on Monday). Ms. Fisher contends that Texas rejected her because she is white.

It was not immediately clear why Mr. Blum’s organization had singled out Harvard, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Each of the three websites makes the same assertion: "It is our belief that [the college] has not followed the Supreme Court’s instructions and it is vulnerable to a lawsuit."

Mr. Blum said last year that he interpreted the Fisher ruling to mean colleges must first try out a race-neutral admissions policy before adopting a race-conscious one. But other legal experts have rejected that interpretation.

In September, Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, said the Fisher ruling did not mean colleges must go so far as to adopt race-neutral alternatives before considering race-conscious policies. "They don’t have to be tried and used first," she said.

In the Fisher case, North Carolina had submitted an amicus brief describing how Chapel Hill's admissions office had studied the potential effects of adopting a race-neutral plan. If the university had guaranteed admission to all students in the top tenth of their high-school class, the brief said, the number of nonwhite and underrepresented minority students would have risen slightly, yet other measures of academic quality, such as test scores and grade-point averages, would have fallen.

In its response on Monday, the university said it "stands by the statements in that amicus brief, as well as the legality and fairness of the current undergraduate admissions policy and process."

Paul M. DeLuca Jr., the provost at Madison, said in a written statement that the Wisconsin flagship had reviewed its holistic admissions policy in the wake of the Fisher decision and earlier Supreme Court rulings, and believes its approach "is appropriate and consistent with the law."

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