The U.S. Department of Justice says it is seeking lawyers to look into a 2-year-old complaint alleging discrimination against Asian-American students in a university’s admission policy, but dismissing reports that it is launching a broader effort to sue colleges over policies seen as discriminating against white applicants.
In a statement released late Wednesday, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said a recent announcement by the department’s civil rights division sought volunteers to investigate the complaint by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups against “a university’s admissions policy and practices.”
The complaint, filed with the Justice Department and the Department of Education in 2015, alleged that Harvard University’s admission policy discriminated against Asian-American applicants.
The Education Department later closed the complaint, citing a similar civil lawsuit against Harvard. But Flores said the case had been “left unresolved,” apparently by the Justice Department.
“This Department of Justice has not received or issued any directive, memorandum, initiative, or policy related to university admissions in general,” she said. “The Department of Justice is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.”
The New York Times first reported about the announcement Tuesday, saying the civil rights division sought lawyers to investigate allegations of discrimination against white students.
The Washington Post also reported on the news and cited an unidentified official describing the project as an effort to investigate affirmative action policies that discriminate against white applicants.
Flores called the reports “inaccurate.”
The Asian American Coalition for Education welcomed the department's decision to look into its complaint.
"The purpose of our complaint is to eliminate all unlawful discrimination against our children," Yukong Zhao, the group's president, said in a statement.
Civil rights advocates who greeted the initial reports with alarm nonetheless remained skeptical about the planned investigation.
“We reject such attempts to use Asian-American students as a wedge to escalate the fears of those who believe that affirmative action creates an unfair advantage against white or Asian students,” said Brenda Shum of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington.
In recent years, Asian-American groups have filed at least five complaints against Ivy League schools, alleging discrimination, according to Nicole Ochi, an attorney representing a different group of Asian students challenging the 2014 suit against Harvard.
In addition to the Harvard case, two other suits filed against the University of North Carolina and University of Texas are pending in courts. All three were filed by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit founded by Edward Blum, a Texas businessman and fierce opponent of affirmative action.
Ochi said that because of the pending lawsuit against Harvard, there was “absolutely no need” for the Justice Department to investigate the complaint. Though the Justice Department has never sued a college or university over its affirmative action policies, it may choose to join the lawsuit against Harvard, she said.
Affirmative action has long been a divisive issue in the United States.
The policy allows colleges and universities to consider race in admitting students and gives minority students an edge over white students. While proponents say it has helped improve diversity on college campuses and given otherwise disadvantaged students a shot at the American dream, critics see affirmative action as reverse discrimination against whites and Asian Americans.
“You can call it ‘affirmative action’ or you can celebrate ‘diversity’ or you can set goals for ‘under-represented minorities,’ but when you consider a person’s skin color in deciding whether to award her an admissions slot or a contract or a job — then you are engaging in racial discrimination,” Roger Clegg, president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, wrote in a blogpost.
Brian Levin, a professor of law at the California State University at San Bernardino, said the civil rights community’s reaction to the reported Department of Justice initiative demonstrated a “deep distrust” of the agency.
“Under this cloud, even a few positive measures within the Justice Department are met with suspicion by many civil rights leaders,” Levin said.
The Justice Department says it remains as committed to protecting civil rights as it did under the Obama administration.
Herman Schwartz, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, said that while the Justice Department has the authority to challenge a school’s affirmative action policies, it is not likely to succeed in light of recent Supreme Court rulings in favor of affirmative action.
“They can initiate [litigation] all they want, but the law of the land is that individualized treatment of applicants is appropriate and will not be challenged or should not be challenged, but will pass muster,” he said.