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The Harvard admissions case: 5 takeaways for medical schools

Geoffrey Young, PhD , Senior Director of Student Affairs and Programs
October 4, 2019

While a federal district court judge upheld the school’s race-conscious admissions policies, medical schools would be wise to revisit their own.

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In a widely anticipated decision involving the use of race-conscious admissions in higher education, the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts ruled Oct. 1 that Harvard University had not unlawfully discriminated against Asian-Americans in its admissions practices. While the case may yet be appealed, there is much wisdom to mine from Judge Allison D. Burroughs’ thoughtful decision.

Here are five key takeaways for medical schools:

  1. This decision did not change current federal law around the consideration of race in the admissions process. While we are pleased with the court’s decision, we must keep in mind that it is a district court decision about one school, and that it may be appealed. To understand your legal obligations when considering race in admissions, you should look to the relevant Supreme Court decisions – particularly Fisher v. University of Texas (Fisher II) – which continue to be the law of the land. Despite the anxiety that these cases may cause, the bottom line is that for 40 years, the Supreme Court has held that the educational benefits of diversity may justify the limited consideration of race as one of many factors in an admissions process.
     
  2. This case underscores the importance of documenting the foundations of your admissions process. In particular, each medical school should have written guidance for its admissions team that clearly outlines the answers to the following questions.
    • What are the goals of your race-conscious admissions program, and how do they relate to your school’s mission?
    • What race-neutral alternatives have you meaningfully considered? The judge in the Harvard case relied upon Harvard’s serious, good-faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives in reaching her conclusion.
    • Does your race-conscious admissions program unduly burden any other races? As noted by Judge Burroughs, “race conscious admissions will always penalize to some extent the groups that are not being advantaged by the process, but this is justified by the compelling interest in diversity and all the benefits that flow from a diverse college population.” However, schools should monitor the burden to other groups to ensure it isn’t disproportionate. 
    • How does the structure of your process ensure that race is used flexibly, as one of many factors? When and how is race considered? If race should not be taken into account at a particular stage or when looking at a particular attribute, be sure this is clear in your written guidance to your admissions team.
       
  3. Beware of your own unconscious biases when interviewing candidates. Like medical schools, Harvard relies heavily on in-person interviews. Interviews are a hallmark of a careful, individualized review process, but, as Harvard cautioned its interviewers, “no one can really be ‘objective’ in attempting to evaluate another person,” and it’s important to be aware of your own biases. Investing in unconscious bias training for your admissions team is a best practice.   
     
  4. This case may be appealed. There is also a federal lawsuit against the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill challenging the consideration of race in its admissions policies. Both the Harvard case and/or the UNC Chapel Hill case may find its way to the Supreme Court, and schools must continue to be mindful that their practices might be challenged. It’s a good idea to consult regularly with your institution’s legal counsel on where things stand so that you can conduct your admissions process with confidence.
     
  5. Admissions work is difficult but crucial to selecting the next generation of physicians and biomedical researchers.  We are heartened by the court’s praise for Harvard’s “considerate, diligent, and intelligent” admissions officers, and agree with the judge’s conclusion that “race conscious admissions programs that survive strict scrutiny… have an important place in society and help ensure that colleges and universities can offer a diverse atmosphere that fosters learning, improves scholarship, and encourages mutual respect and understanding.”
     

The AAMC has published a number of resources covering best practices in holistic review in admissions, including Roadmap to Diversity and Educational Excellence: Key Legal and Educational Policy Foundations for Medical Schools; Roadmap to Excellence: Key Concepts for Evaluating the Impact of Medical School Holistic Admissions; and Roadmap to Diversity: Integrating Holistic Review Principles into Medical School Admission Processes. We urge interested parties to download and share these resources. In addition, the College Board’s Access and Diversity Collaborative has a produced a number of useful resources including a compilation of research findings relating to diversity in education and leading admissions practices. We will continue to post resources and updates on this important issue on aamc.org.

Geoffrey Young, PhD, is Senior Director of Student Affairs and Programs at the AAMC. A psychologist, Young joined the AAMC in 2011 after serving as the Associate Dean for Admissions at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. Prior to that, he served as Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the Medical College of Virginia Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and Assistant Dean for Student and Multicultural Affairs at Rutgers University-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
 

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