The United States Department of Justice sued Yale University Thursday over charges of racial discrimination against Asian American and white applicants in its admissions process.
The Justice Department determined in mid-August that Yale violated civil rights law by using race as a “determinative factor” in its admissions process, alleging it disadvantaged Asian American and white applicants. At the time, the Justice Department demanded Yale change its admissions procedures in a press release, threatening to sue unless Yale complied.
Federal authorities are also investigating Harvard’s admissions process — an effort that was ongoing through at least last December.
Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division explained the Justice Department’s reasoning in a press release announcing the lawsuit.
“All persons who apply for admission to colleges and universities should expect and know that they will be judged by their character, talents, and achievements and not the color of their skin,” said Dreiband in the release. “To do otherwise is to permit our institutions to foster stereotypes, bitterness, and division.”
Yale University President Peter Salovey defended the University’s admissions process in a statement Thursday, rejecting the Justice Department’s claims of discrimination.
“Our admissions practices are completely fair and lawful. Yale’s admissions policies will not change as a result of the filing of this baseless lawsuit,” Salovey wrote in the statement. “We look forward to defending these policies in court.”
Indiana University law professor Kevin D. Brown said he believes the Justice Department sued Yale because it wants to argue against affirmative action before the Supreme Court.
“Clearly what the plaintiffs are counting on is getting this up to the Supreme Court where, with a new Supreme Court now, it is a much more hostile Supreme Court with respect to affirmative action,” Brown said. “It’s probably right to believe that with the addition of [Judge Amy V. Coney Barrett] on the Supreme Court, you’ll have a solid person majority against affirmative action.”
Brown added that he believes President Donald J. Trump’s nomination of Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court could very well result in the end of that policy, which has been in place since the 1960s and has survived multiple challenges at the highest level.
“If Amy Coney Barrett is, in fact, confirmed — unless there’s an effort to pack the court — it is likely that affirmative action will fall over the next two to three years,” Brown said.
University of New Mexico law professor Vinay Harpalani also said he thinks federal prosecutors had ambitions beyond just forcing Yale to change its admissions procedures.
“I think more broadly, the Trump administration’s goal here is just to kind of send a public message to universities, to conservative interests that want to end affirmative action,” Harpalani said.
The Justice Department has also supported anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions in its ongoing lawsuit arguing that Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian American applicants in its admissions program. The Department submitted an amicus brief in February calling for the First Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a District Court ruling in Harvard’s favor, and Dreiband presented against Harvard’s policies last month during oral arguments in the appeals process.
University of Maryland American Studies professor Janelle S. Wong wrote in an emailed statement that the lawsuit is an attempt to undermine affirmative action. Wong — who used to serve on the national board for the Association for Asian American Studies — added that she believes prosecutors did not genuinely intend to promote equality for Asian Americans as a whole.
“The Yale complaint also imposes a very strange definition of ‘Asian American.’ It states explicitly that for the purposes of the lawsuit, the Asian American category excludes Southeast Asian groups such as Cambodians and Hmong students,” Wong wrote. “Hence, the Trump DOJ is manufacturing their own definition of our communities to suit their political agenda.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on those criticisms.
—Staff writer Benjamin L. Fu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenFu_2.