Several major pending lawsuits have the potential to crumble the pillars of long-standing practices in higher education, including whether colleges can consider race in admissions and whether faith-based institutions can be exempt from a federal sex discrimination law.
Another high-profile case accuses top-ranked colleges of colluding to limit financial aid packages, while still another centers on the messy divorce between Liberty University and its former president, Jerry Falwell Jr.
Below, we rounded up six key cases that we'll be watching in 2022 and beyond for the impact they will have on individual colleges and the higher ed sector as a whole.
Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University
Race-conscious college admissions may be facing one of its greatest threats yet. Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a case involving Harvard University's policies.
SFFA contends Harvard unfairly considers race in admissions, which it says hurts Asian Americans' chances of attending the Ivy League university. A federal appeals court ruled in late 2020 that the university's policies don't violate the Constitution or intentionally discriminate against Asian Americans.
But if the Supreme Court accepts the case, legal experts say the bench's conservative majority could be more receptive to arguments against affirmative action than the court has been in the past.
In June, the Supreme Court deferred deciding on whether to take up the case, asking the U.S. Department of Justice to weigh in. The department has since urged the court not to review the matter, citing the federal appeals court ruling that upheld Harvard University's policies.
SFFA also recently lost a similar case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in federal district court. It asked the Supreme Court to review the two cases together.
Henry et al. v. Brown University et al.
A group of former college students is suing 16 top-ranked colleges, including several Ivy League schools, alleging they've been illegally colluding on their financial aid formulas and driving up the price of college.
Federal law allows colleges to collaborate on their methodology for determining financial aid awards, but only if they're need-blind institutions, meaning they don't factor in a students' ability to pay for college when making admissions decisions.
The lawsuit says that nine of the named universities aren't truly need-blind because they prioritize children of past donors or potential future donors or engage in other practices that give an advantage to wealthy applicants. Therefore, these schools aren't eligible for the exception that federal law provides, it argues.
The schools named in the lawsuit include Yale University, Georgetown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 13 others. All the universities named are current or former members of the 568 Presidents Group, a collective of colleges formed in 1998 to craft a shared financial aid methodology.
While the lawsuit doesn't say whether the other seven universities are truly need-blind, it asserts they also aren't eligible for the exemption because they've colluded with the other colleges on the methodology.
Spokespeople for some of the institutions, including Brown University, the California Institute of Technology and Yale, defended their policies after the lawsuit was filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Elizabeth Hunter, et al. v. U.S. Department of Education
Around three dozen people who attended or considered attending religious colleges filed a lawsuit early last year against the U.S. Department of Education that could shake up gender and sexuality discrimination policies at faith-based schools nationwide.
Federal law bars colleges that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity. But it carves out an exemption for faith-based schools that adhere to religious beliefs that conflict with these requirements.
The lawsuit, filed in the Oregon U.S. District Court, seeks to end those institutional protections. It alleges that students attending certain faith-based colleges have been subject to harmful and discriminatory practices, including being sent to anti-gay counseling.
A federal judge granted motions to intervene from three Christian institutions — Corban University in Oregon, William Jessup University in California and Phoenix Seminary in Arizona — as well as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The three institutions and the council have all asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
Houston Community College System v. David Buren Wilson
The Supreme Court agreed to take up a case last year that could impact the First Amendment rights of college governing board members. The lawsuit centers on David Wilson, who won a seat on Houston Community College System's board in 2013.
Wilson voiced concerns during his tenure that the trustees were violating their own bylaws, filing two lawsuits against the board for alleged infractions and hiring a private investigator to look into the board and one of the members.
In 2018, the trustees voted to publicly censure Wilson for acting counter to the board's best interests and violating its code of conduct, according to court documents. As a result, Wilson couldn't hold leadership positions on the board or be reimbursed for travel related to his position, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case in November, and a decision is expected this year.
Madilyn Short, et al. v. Gov. Michael Dunleavy, et al.
Four college students are suing Alaska and the state's governor to protect a higher education fund that pays for scholarship programs.
As a result of budgetary battles in the state legislature, the Alaska Higher Education Investment Fund is set to lose more than $410 million. The fund finances merit-based and need-based aid for undergraduates as well as loan forgiveness for certain medical students.
The money is under threat of being permanently swept into Alaska's Constitutional Budget Reserve, which acts as a savings account for the state. If lawmakers borrow money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, other state funds automatically replenish the account unless three-quarters of lawmakers vote to stop the process. A vote to halt the replenishment didn't pass last year.
The $410 million-plus was presumably swept into the CBR in mid-December, according to court documents.
"If this funding weren't available to students anymore, I think the University of Alaska System would see a significant decline in enrollment amongst Alaskan students," plaintiff Riley von Borstel told KTOO.
University of Alaska President Pat Pitney recently voiced support for the lawsuit, KTUU reported. A university spokesperson told the station the lawsuit is being funded from a private account that Pitney directs.
Lawyers for both parties have asked the Alaska Supreme Court to issue a ruling by late February, before lawmakers finalize a state budget.
Liberty University v. Jerry Falwell Jr.
After Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned amid controversy in 2020 from Liberty University, the evangelical college his father founded, the institution sued him for more than $40 million in damages. Liberty alleges the former president breached his contract and fiduciary duty to the university.
Falwell made headlines in 2020, when he posted a photo to Instagram showing his pants partially unzipped while his arm was around a Liberty employee. After he resigned, he told The Washington Examiner that he was being extorted by a man with whom his wife had an affair. That man, Giancarlo Granda, had been threatening to expose the relationship since 2014, Liberty's lawsuit says.
Granda told Reuters that he and Falwell's wife "developed an intimate relationship and Jerry enjoyed watching from the corner of the room." The Falwells have denied those allegations.
The lawsuit alleges Falwell took steps to cover up the extortion attempts instead of sharing the scheme with Liberty's governing board. It also says he manipulated the board's executive committee into adding a higher severance payout if Liberty terminated his contract without cause. At the time, he said this would protect the school if his support for then-President Donald Trump harmed the school's reputation.
The matter is pending in a Virginia circuit court. Falwell has filed his own lawsuit against Liberty alleging defamation.