The United States Department of Justice alleged Yale University discriminates against Asian American and white applicants, a finding experts say goes hand in hand with simultaneous challenges to Harvard’s race-conscious admissions process.
The Justice Department’s Thursday press release alleged that Yale weights race unfairly in its admissions process and has actively used race in a way that has disadvantaged Asian American and white applicants from 2000 to 2017.
The Justice Department has also been conducting parallel investigations into race-conscious admissions at several universities. An investigation into Harvard admissions was ongoing as of December 2019, according to a Freedom of Information Act Request filed by The Crimson. Separately, the Justice Department has backed anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuit against Harvard.
University of New Mexico law professor Vinay Harpalani said he believed Yale administrators would look to the example of Harvard’s trial lawyer as they prepare to defend their own admissions process.
“I see the defenses as kind of synergistic,” Harpalani said. “I do see Yale looking to Harvard, in terms of the model for how to defend this, just looking at everything Harvard did with the expert witnesses and the data that they used and the arguments they presented.”
Yale quickly defended its admissions process in its own statement Thursday, calling the Justice Department’s allegations “baseless.” Yale President Peter Salovey additionally stated that the University would continue to consider race in its admissions process and reiterated Yale’s commitment to diversity in its student body. The Justice Department sent a letter to Yale threatening a lawsuit if the University does not suspend the consideration of race in admissions.
A political nonprofit, the Asian American Coalition for Education, joined dozens of other advocacy groups to file civil rights complaints against Harvard in 2015 and Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown in 2016. Swan Lee, a co-founder of AACE, said she believes a Justice Department lawsuit is necessary to hold Yale and other universities accountable.
“If it really goes to that step, I think it will be good for the transparency of the quality of admissions,” Lee said. “In a lawsuit, Yale probably has to provide its internal admission data so that the scholars can analyze it and examine it. So having this data will be very valuable for Americans to know what is going on in admissions.”
The Justice Department’s findings against Yale come shortly before the First Circuit Court of Appeals is set to reconsider an October 2019 district court decision which upheld Harvard’s admissions process. The Justice Department was among the organizations to submit amicus briefs calling for the appeals court to overturn Harvard’s system and government attorneys will present an oral argument opposing the University’s practices
Samuel R. Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan who formerly worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said that, though Harvard and Yale are facing separate legal challenges, the two cases represent broader opposition to affirmative action at universities nationwide.
“The Harvard case is in front of the First Circuit Court of Appeals right now and they're going to make a decision about that case. The Yale case is a separate case; it's even in a different circuit,” Bagenstos said. “So they'll proceed separately. But I think the way to think about them is they're part of the same agenda challenging affirmative action in elite education.”
Bagenstos also said he believes that the Justice Department’s decision is an especially strategic move in light of the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
“What you're likely to see over the next several months — and even after November, if Trump loses — is a real acceleration of issuing findings, letters, filing lawsuits, and taking other actions that are designed to force a Biden administration to live with the priorities of the Trump administration,” Bagenstos said.
Harpalani also said the Justice Department’s timing seemed strategic and added that he believes the Justice Department would have a significantly different approach under presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s leadership.
“I don’t know if the Yale lawsuit is going to go very far if Trump loses the election,” Harpalani said. “I think it would be a complete reversal. I think the DOJ would actually defend race-conscious policies.”
—Staff writer Benjamin L. Fu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenFu_2.