BOSTON, MASS. - A trial began on Monday in a lawsuit alleging Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants, a closely watched case that could influence how U.S. colleges may use race as a factor in their admissions decisions.
The non-jury trial before U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs in Boston pits the Ivy League school against Students for Fair Admissions, an organization founded by an anti-affirmative action activist that sued Harvard in 2014.
The lawsuit, backed by the Trump administration, could eventually reach the Supreme Court. This would give the newly cemented five-member conservative majority on the country's highest court a chance to bar the use of affirmative action to help minority applicants get into college.
Conservatives argue that affirmative action, which aims to offset historic patterns of racial discrimination, hurts white people and Asian-Americans, who outperform other minority groups on academic measures.
A small group of SFFA supporters with the Chinese American Alliance stood outside the courthouse on Monday, holding signs that said "My race should not hurt me in admissions" and "Discrimination in the name of diversity is wrong."
SFFA, which is headed by Edward Blum, claimed in court papers that Harvard, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, illegally engages in "racial balancing" that artificially limits the number of Asian-American students at the elite school.
The group contended that despite strong scores on a variety of academic and extracurricular measures, Asian-American applicants received the lowest score of any group on a subjective "personal" rating assigned by Harvard admissions officials.
Blum previously encouraged the daughter of a friend to bring the last case challenging the use of race as a factor in college admissions to reach the Supreme Court, which in a 2016 ruling allowed the practice to continue.
Harvard denies discriminating against Asian-Americans, saying their rates of admission have grown significantly since 2010. Asian-Americans, who represent about 6 percent of the U.S. population, comprise 23 percent of Harvard's current freshman class.
Harvard also notes that the Supreme Court has previously held that colleges have an interest in enrolling diverse groups of students and may consider race as one factor among many when reviewing applications.
The U.S. Justice Department, which launched a related probe of Harvard after Republican President Donald Trump took office last year, has backed SFFA's case, saying that Harvard has not seriously considered alternative, race-neutral approaches to admissions.
The Justice Department last month launched a similar investigation into whether Yale University also discriminates against Asian-Americans, an allegation it denies.