BOSTON — A federal trial alleging bias against Harvard University underscored a cold truth of the school’s admissions process on Wednesday: that money and pedigree can open doors that academics alone might not.
Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard, revealed a series of internal Harvard emails in which top university officials take special note of students with ties to major donors.
In one, from 2014, a men’s tennis coach thanked the admissions dean for meeting with a possible recruit whose family had given $1.1 million, noting that officials “rolled out the red carpet” for the family. He added that “it would mean a great deal” to see the student at Harvard.
A year earlier, the dean of a Harvard graduate school praised the admissions chief for admitting certain students who were “all big wins.” He singled out one with ties to a donor who had promised to help fund a building and school fellowships.
Lawyers representing Students for Fair Admissions displayed the emails in court while questioning William Fitzsimmons, the admissions dean at Harvard for more than 30 years.
During the trial at Boston’s federal court, the group’s lawyers suggested that Harvard accepts relatives of alumni and donors even if they otherwise make poor candidates, an accusation that Fitzsimmons denied.
While relatives of donors sometimes make it to Fitzsimmons’ “dean’s list,” which flags students of special interest, he said they still get reviewed by a 40-person committee that makes final admissions decisions.
Nonetheless, Fitzsimmons said Harvard has good reason to pay attention to backers.
“It is important for the long-term strength of the institution, in that we have the resources we need to, among other things, provide scholarships,” he said.
Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia, accuses Harvard of intentionally discriminating against Asian-Americas in its admissions process. It says Harvard holds Asians to a higher standard and consistently gives them lower scores on a “personal rating.”
The lawsuit also opposes policies that provide an admissions edge to students tied to donors or alumni, saying it works against racial minorities.
Talking to reporters outside the courtroom, one of Harvard’s lawyers, William Lee, emphasized that while the children of some donors get in, some don’t. He added that there’s no evidence the preference affects Asian-Americans.
“No economist claims this,” he said.
So-called legacy preferences are common at elite colleges but have come under fire from some campus activists who say it takes seats away from low-income and first-generation students. While the practice is commonly known, it’s rarely discussed as openly as in the Harvard emails revealed Wednesday.
In one chain of emails, a top fundraising official offered Fitzsimmons advice on a potential student whose family had given $8.7 million. The official said the family had been generous in the past but that more recent years were “challenging.”
“Going forward, I don’t see a significant opportunity for further major gifts,” the official wrote.
The trial follows a series of past court cases challenging the use of race in college admissions, a practice that generally has been upheld. Many U.S. colleges say they consider the race of applicants as one of many factors to admit a diverse mix of students.
But the topic has come under renewed scrutiny in lawsuits and from federal authorities, who are investigating the use of race at Harvard and Yale universities.
The Harvard trial began Monday and is expected to last three weeks. A federal judge will decide the case, which is expected to be appealed either way.