The Education Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Harvard University’s preferences for the relatives of alumni and donors when making admissions decisions, according to lawyers for several groups that claim the practices are discriminatory.
“The U.S. Department of Education has notified Lawyers for Civil Rights that it has formally launched the federal civil rights investigation requested,” the legal group said in a statement.
The inquiry comes after a formal complaint that three groups filed after the Supreme Court’s decision last month on the use of affirmative action by colleges and universities that severely limit race-conscious admissions.
Lawyers for the groups — Chica Project, ACEDONE and the Greater Boston Latino Network — argued that Harvard’s practice of extending preferences to so-called legacy admissions illegally discriminated against Black, Hispanic and Asian applicants in favor of wealthy students who were less qualified.
The Education Department said in a statement that “the Office for Civil Rights can confirm that there is an open investigation of Harvard University under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We do not comment on open investigations.”
Title VI is a part of federal law that prohibits discrimination, exclusion from participation or denial of benefits “on the ground of race, color or national origin.”
The move by the Biden administration comes amid heightened scrutiny of college admissions practices after the Supreme Court decision, which reversed decades of policies that increased admissions chances for Black students and those from other minority groups. In a case that grew out of a challenge to Harvard’s admissions practices, the court said that the practice of affirmative action violated the Constitution.
Groups angry with that decision are criticizing the longstanding practice of legacy admissions.
Nicole Rura, a spokeswoman for Harvard, said in a statement that the university was already reviewing the way it admits students to ensure it is in compliance with the law after the court’s decision.
“Our review includes examination of a range of data and information,” she said, “along with learnings from Harvard’s efforts over the past decade to strengthen our ability to attract and support a diverse intellectual community that is fundamental to our pursuit of academic excellence.”
Ms. Rura added: “As this work continues, and moving forward, Harvard remains dedicated to opening doors to opportunity and to redoubling our efforts to encourage students from many different backgrounds to apply for admission.”