Following a two-year investigation, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) accused Yale University of violating federal civil rights law by discriminating against Asian American and white applicants in its undergraduate admissions process.
The announcement has been seen as another move by the Trump administration to threaten the policy of affirmative action, which has been credited with increasing diversity in higher education institutions.
In 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the use of affirmative action policies that consider race during admissions, but outlined limits, such as restrictions on race-based quotas and the consideration of race as an overriding factor in admissions.
In a letter on Thursday, Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general of the department’s civil rights division, accused Yale of using race as a predominant criteria in admissions rather than just a “plus” factor.
“Yale grants substantial, and often determinative, preferences based on race to certain racially favored applicants and relatively and significantly disfavors other applicants because of their race.”
Dreiband added that such discriminatory admission policies impose “undue and unlawful penalties” on “racially disfavored” white and Asian American applicants.
“For example, the likelihood of admission for Asian American and white applicants who have similar academic credentials is significantly lower than for African American and Hispanic applicants to Yale College.
“Yale’s admissions data and other information also show that the University is using race as more than just plus factors but rather as predominant criteria that in practice are determinative in many admissions decisions.”
The DOJ also accused Yale of “racially balancing” its admitted class by ensuring that stable percentages of major racial groups are maintained in its student body, demanding Yale stop using race and nationality as a factor in its upcoming 2020-2021 undergraduate admissions cycle.
If Yale does use these factors in determining admissions, it should submit a plan to the DOJ “demonstrating its proposal is narrowly tailored as required by law.”
This means that, in compliance with Supreme Court rulings on the issue of affirmative action, Yale should demonstrate that it uses race not as an overriding factor but as merely an additional factor in admissions. Quotas and other restrictions motivated by race are also forbidden.
The DOJ added that any plan submitted by Yale should also include an end date for Yale’s use of race in admissions. Non-compliance with these measures may result in a lawsuit.
Yale president responds
Yale’s president Peter Salovey denied the DOJ’s allegations in a statement, with another Yale spokeswoman calling them “meritless” and “hasty.”
Salovey added that Yale had been cooperating with the DOJ investigation before it was hastily concluded.
“The DOJ [Department of Justice] concluded its investigation before reviewing and receiving all the information it has requested.
“I am dismayed that the DOJ inexplicably rushed to conclude its investigation without conducting a fully informed analysis, which would have shown that Yale’s practices absolutely comply with decades of Supreme Court precedent.
“Yale College will not change its admissions processes in response to today’s letter because the DOJ is seeking to impose a standard that is inconsistent with existing law,” Salovey said
He added that Yale continues to take a holistic approach to admission, looking at “the whole person when selecting whom to admit among the many thousands of highly qualified applicants.”
The investigation into Yale’s admission practices began in 2018 after civil rights activist Yukong Zhao filed a complaint to the DOJ in 2016 accusing three Ivy League universities – Yale, Brown University and Dartmouth College – of discriminating against Asian American applicants.
The complaints against Brown and Dartmouth were dismissed by the DOJ because Zhao was unable to provide sufficient evidence to substantiate her claims. However, the investigation against Yale proceeded.
In a similar case, a federal judge ruled in favor of Harvard in 2019, stating that the University had not discriminated against Asian Americans in the admissions process.
The plaintiff in the case, the Students for Fair Admissions organization, has appealed the ruling. An oral argument will be heard in the US First Circuit Court of Appeals next month.
Before the federal judge ruled in favor of Harvard, the Trump administration had filed “a statement of interest” in court supporting the plaintiff’s views, accusing Harvard of racial bias against Asian American students.
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