September 28, 2018 / 8:05 PM / 3 months ago

UPDATE 2-Harvard admissions bias case can proceed to trial -U.S. judge

(Adds further details from ruling, background on case)

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON, Sept 28 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday cleared the way for a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants to go to trial, a closely watched case that could influence the use of race in college admissions decisions.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs in Boston rejected dueling motions by Harvard and a nonprofit group suing the Ivy League university to rule in their favor ahead of a non-jury trial set to begin on Oct. 15.

The ruling came after the U.S. Justice Department, which has been investigating Harvard for potential civil rights violations over its affirmative action policy, threw its support behind the 2014 lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions Inc.

Burroughs said that rather than presenting her with undisputed facts and evidence that would allow her to rule without overseeing a trial, Harvard and SFFA had filed motions that were "essentially mirror images of one another."

"There are disputed material facts based on Harvard's fact witnesses, the statistical evidence, and the expert opinions presented by each side that cannot be resolved before trial," Burroughs wrote.

Representatives for the group and Harvard did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that universities may use affirmative action to help minority applicants get into college. Conservatives have said such programs can hurt white people and Asian Americans.

SFFA, which is headed by a prominent anti-affirmative action activist, alleged that evidence showed that Harvard's admissions process, which factored in race, significantly disadvantaged Asian Americans compared with other groups.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard has denied the allegations and has criticized the lawsuit as an effort to attack the right of colleges to consider race as an admissions factor.

After President Donald Trump, a Republican, took office last year, the Justice Department began investigating whether Harvard's policies are discriminatory because they limit Asian-Americans' acceptance.

In court papers, SFFA claimed an Asian-American male applicant with a 25 percent chance of admission would have a 35 percent chance if he were white, 75 percent chance if he were Hispanic and 95 percent chance if he were black.

A Harvard research division found in 2013 that over a decade, Asian-American admission rates were lower than those for whites annually even though whites outperformed Asian-American applicants only on a subjective "personal" rating, SFFA said. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jonathan Oatis)

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